“The Chinese Lady” at the Magic Theatre
“The Chinese Lady” at Magic Theatre
Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” at the Magic Theatre is a riveting two actor play that tells the true story of the first Chinese woman to arrive on American soil.
Afong Moy (Rinabeth Apostol) is dressed in traditional silk dress and pants with an elaborate headpiece . She is perched on a chair in a room constructed to replicate that of a rich lady’s in China. This lady Afong was brought to American at age 14 when she is put on display for paying guests at one of the Peale Family’s museums. Afong’s servant Atung (Will Dao) opens the curtain, brings her food and a pot of tea and helps her perform her show. Their relationship becomes more complicated as the years go on.
The scenes take place starting in 1834 and end in 1887 as we see her aging and becoming more defiant. Her show is for Americans to gape and see how a Chinese lady behaves, walks on her tiny feet, eats with chop sticks and drinks tea from the colorful pot. To her imagined audience she explains all of this and puts the story into historical context. She talks about feet binding, how she consumes her food and the story of Chinese tea. Later the story becomes political, especially during the years of the Opium Wars. There is a scene when Andrew Jackson, played by Atung, visits her. This lustful, crude president even asks to touch her tiny foot.
The Peale Family, most noted for its famous artists, also created a commercial museum with attractions such as “The Chinese Lady”. Later in 1864 they sell out to PT Barnum and Afong’s show becomes like any of their other freak shows, presented to a curious, gaping audience.
Into a compact 90 minute play without intermission, playwright Lloyd Sui has told many incidents from American history of the period from 1834 to 1887 with the the gold rush, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the anti-Chinese riots and massacres. The superb actress Apostol also offers a study of the psychology of a captive individual put on display.
Jacquelyn Scott designed a clever raised stage curtained by a sumptuous patterned green fabric ending in a rust colored border and fringe. Costumes by Abra Berman, sound by Sara Huddleston, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and excellent direction by Mina Morita all help create this fine production.
“The Chinese Lady” runs through November 3, 2019 at the Magic Theatre. Watch for an extension. MagicTheatre.org or 415 441 8822.