American history has many dark corners. Some of those corners have in recent years been well explored in literature, theatre and film, while some of the corners remain relatively unexplored. One of the less explored regions of the American saga is the early history of the Chinese in America. Of all the immigrant groups who came to American voluntarily, the Chinese were the only group that actually saw laws passed severely restricting their immigration, beginning with the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Enter Korean American playwright Lloyd Suh. Rather than focusing on the period of exclusion, Lloyd Suh set his sights on the earliest days of Chinese immigration to the United States. In fact, the central character of his play The Chinese Lady is Afong Moy, generally regarded as the first Chinese female to immigrate to America.
Afong Moy didn’t exactly set out from China in search of her patch of the American Dream. In fact, as she herself tells the tale in this play, she was sold by her parents to a pair of American merchants specializing in Chinese imports. (Though it would be more accurate to say she was “rented out” by her parents. She was supposed to return to China two years later.) The merchants saw in this charming young lady an opportunity to boost sales of their Chinese products by turning her into a live, walking-and-talking exhibition. Afong Moy was soon appearing at various venues in New York, usually as an exhibition in a “museum” of oddities, joining the ranks of bearded ladies, human beanpoles, ventriloquists, and contortionists.
For roughly six hours a day, Afong Moy would sit on a throne in her “typical Chinese space” and … well, be Chinese. She would come out in fashionable Chinese attire, talk about China, drink tea the Chinese way, eat with chopsticks, and sashay about in her performance space. Mainstream Americans would pay money to come and gawk at this curiosity from China. They were most amused by her tiny feet (the result of torturous foot-binding) and how she ate with chopsticks.
That’s the historical basis for Lloyd Suh’s play, which consists of just two characters: Afong Moy and her compatriot and translator Atung. The first few scenes give us Afong Moy the performer, whose performance is simply to be Chinese as Americans of that time wished to imagine the Chinese. Author Suh intersperses these bits with the central character’s comments on how it feels to shape a stereotype for her American audiences and to be “a product” offered to anyone who paid the price of admission.
Later scenes inform us that Afong Moy and Atung did tours of other American cities, even having a private audience with President Andrew Jackson. As Afong Moy and Atung re-enact this meeting, we see how the translator Atung is as much of a performer as his client; he spins both Afong Moy’s comments and questions and Jackson’s replies, making the meeting seem even more cordial than it apparently was.
But Suh soon departs from the historical path. He has Afong Moy joining P.T. Barnum’s crew, taking her place alongside the Fiji Mermaid and General Tom Thumb, America’s most famous dwarf. There is, however, no record of the Chinese Lady ever working with Barnum. In fact, she fully disappeared from the public eye in 1850, 16 years after her arrival in America. Her fate from there is rendered only in rumors and suppositions.
But Lloyd Suh was writing a play here, not an historical account. He invoked his artistic license to bolster his case about how 19th century America dealt with its Asian presence. Afong Moy is evidently just 14 years old when we see her in the first scene, and in the play, her story extends for many decades. In the last scenes, she steps out of her received persona and becomes a narrator of later events, informing us of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the later renewals of the act which were even more stringent in trying to keep Chinese immigrants out of America.
InterAct Theatre Company has brought Suh’s script to life in a most commendable production. Under Justin Jain’s sensitive direction, Afong Moy’s tale comes through in a way that is biting but not dripping with venom.
As the title character, Bi Jean Ngo’s performance is both haunting and haunted. She nicely captures the staunch stoicism that allowed Afong Moy to survive her ordeals of humiliation, but also shows the pain and resentment that attended her throughout her career. One American Studies scholar writing on the Chinese Lady’s career noted that her persona was an intricate blend of two reigning stereotypes: the “lotus blossom” and the “dragon lady”. Ngo’s performance beams out the lotus blossom while entertaining the visitors to the exhibition, but always has that dragon lady ready to be unleashed at the proper moments.
As Atung, Dan Kim proves a stalwart foil to Ngo’s Afong Moy. Kim portrays this foil deftly, seemingly accepting his role as “irrelevant” in the early going, only to show how he is actually indispensable as the story becomes more knotted. More, for a long stretch of the performance, Kim’s Atung comes off as asexual, which makes the monologue where he shares his sexual dreams about Afong Moy that more effective – totally unexpected, almost subversive.
The production is beautifully enhanced by Mel Hsu, a multi-talented musician who designed the show’s soundscape and performed throughout on a variety of instruments, including the guzheng, the cello and the acoustic guitar. When she suddenly launches into a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land”, the scene takes on a deeper significance, as does the song itself. Quite a relevant musical touch there.
At the very end of the performance, Bi Jean Ngo as Afong Moy addresses her audience (us) and asks, “Are you looking at me?”, then turns her head back and forth several times, clearly suggesting the movements of an automaton. (This is not a spoiler. A spoiler would consist of relating what happens in the 10 to 15 minutes leading up to this bit. That I’ll keep to myself.) The key point notion being made with this action is that Afong Moy as a performer was in some way dehumanized, turned into one of those automatons popular in 19th century carnivals. Packaged as a product, the Chinese Lady was seen as such, as Afong Moy the person disappeared into the product. The strategy of imitating an automaton is a perfect close to this show, and whoever came up with that strategy is deserving of a deep appreciative nod.
The Chinese Lady runs at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street through Sunday, November 21. Weds. & Thurs. performances at 7:00, Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m.