The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Ralph B. Peña. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Daniel M. Isaac as Atung, Shannon Tyo as Afong Moy on the set by Jonghyun Georgia Lee; photo: Eloy Garcia
Chinese lady on display in the 1860s
"I understand it is my duty to show you things that are exotic,
Shannon Tyo; photo: Eloy Garcia
Afong Moy arrived in the United States, in New York City actually, 1834. She was the first Chinese woman to be seen anywhere in America at the time. Her services had been purchased by Nathaniel and Frederic Carne, importers of oriental objects, for a period of two years. They displayed her in a quasi-Chinese room where people paid fifty cents to watch her sit and move, eat, drink tea and also walk on her four inch deep bound feet. She was about 19 years old, but claimed to be only 14. She was watched this way for more than a decade and was later seen in the P.T.Barnum museum of freaks and oddities. This almost incidental life is the basis for a world premiere play being presented by Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through August 11.
Crafted by playwright Lloyd Suh, Afong Moy's life in America is extended to a massive length moving in stages from 1834 through 1906 with a most peculiar and romantic epilogue set in 2018. Her purpose, the play tells us, was to introduce Americans to the Chinese culture, but in reality she was only seen as a moneymaker for her handlers who saw no other aspect of their showpiece. In the play, though, she is a spokesperson for her people and her culture, an explainer of all things Chinese culture. She is provided with a translator named Atung who is reliably humble and circumspect who prefers to remain unseen and "irrelevant." It is that very intention that sparks the drama in this new play and thanks to two of the most beautiful actors the results are captivating.
Shannon Tyo plays Afong Moy, first as a teenage girl displaying a level of professional maturity well beyond her years, then as a young woman discovering her own political passions and later the woman whose experiences have helped to form the understanding person she has become in spite of her inability to use what she has learned in any way that can help her people who have come to the United States. She repeats her first scene at least three times, with subtle differences to mark the passing of time. Ultimately her simple, straightforward performance morphs into something else entirely, but it takes a while. It is a while worth waiting for as the play's unbroken eighty-eight minutes roll on by.
Daniel K. Isaac; photo: Eloy Garcia
As her less than enthusiastic attendant and translator, Atung - though irrelevant - becomes more and more indispensable to Afong Moy. He is played by the highly relevant and definitely indispensable Daniel K. Isaac who lends his handsome face, agile body and sonorous voice to the character. At one point in the play his running across the stage closing the delicate curtain arouses in Atung the animal spirit he would otherwise deny and his monologue about his own passions is truly overwhelming.
Isaac's voice is his finest asset. Deep, rich, and resonant his lines, short ones or longer ones, reach the ear as sensual pleasures. There is no other way to describe this voice completely. Especially in contrast to the soft, high and delicate tones of Shannon Tyo, Isaac is the preternatural possessor of decadent charm and allure.
"I have an appetite for what I cannot have," he says in his big solo scene. "And because I cannot have anything in this life, you see, I cannot have anything. So it is natural that what I want is always that which is most forbidden." Isaac is brilliant in this lengthy speech, becoming the frightening human animal that has been feared by so many people through the centuries. But Isaac's Atung is a gentle soul for all that and his loyalty is fascinating. The attraction between his Atung and Afong Moy is clear but thanks to the playwright's creativity the passions shared cannot be developed for we are looking at a Chinese culture that doesn't provide for the usual necessary outlets.
Shannon Tyo; photo: Eloy Garcia
Director Ralph G. Peña has given the play a wonderful, self-contained world of life and movement. At times it is almost too stylized and seems to become a parody of itself, of the Chinese theatrical arts, if you will. But still, it is the delicacy he has allotted to his actors that makes them ring so very true to our idealized stereotype figures as we perceive them. Thankfully both get those wonderful break-out moments in the play where their cultural differences from our own (most of our own) slip into an obscurity daunted by shared human passions. His control over the script and its necessary actions is remarkable. The Afong Moy relates thetale of her meeting with President Andrew Jackson, her words are abused by her translator Atung who also plays Atung's own version of how Jackson has reacted. No funnier moment exists in this play.
The older Afong Moy has changed remarkably, not only in appearance but in actions and in the confidence she now has in the language of her adopted country. She is dressed here by designer Jonghyun Georgia Lee in appropriately period dress, much tighter and much more 20th Century Fox Chinese chic than ever before. The change is remarkable. Lee has also designed the wonderful set, a box within the box of the St. Germain stage. the remarkably effective lighting was designed by Olver Wason and composer Fabian Obispo has created a sound curtain with his own music and with sound effects that is both beautiful and sensual.
I think that the word sensual, used far too frequently above, is the most apt word to apply to "The Chinese Lady" as this play, almost from the outset, applies that human quality to the work. This world premiere in Pittsfield has been co-produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company, the "nation's premiere incubator of new plays by Asian American playwrights," according to the program. I do believe that this is one play that will develop a life, best seen with these two actors and this director staging it.
This is one of the finest works presented by Barrington Stage this year.
The Chinese Lady plays on the Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through August 11. For information and tickets go on line to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at 413-236-8888.