'The Chinese Lady' casts a long look at hate

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'The Chinese Lady' casts a long look at hate
Shannon Tyo performs in “The Chinese Lady” at the Public Theater in New York, Feb. 22, 2022. History is told through the eyes of Tyo’s character, Afong Moy, who arrives in the United States to be on display at a museum. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Afong Moy is known as “The Chinese Lady,” but really she is just a girl — 14 when she arrives alone in New York in 1834, brought by a pair of merchant brothers who struck a deal with her father back in Guangzhou province to put her in a museum for two years, on display.

Possibly the first Chinese woman in the United States, she is marketed as a curiosity. Crowds pay to ogle her as she brews tea, eats with chopsticks and walks around the room on her bound feet. It’s a performance of cultural identity, and she is happy to enact it — enthusiastic, even, at the start. Cheerfully naive, unsuspecting of the world’s cruelty, she views herself as an educator, fostering understanding.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she says to her gawkers, who are also us: the audience at the Public Theater, watching Lloyd Suh’s play “The Chinese Lady,” a moving and often sharply funny riff on the story of the real Afong Moy, traversing 188 years of American ugliness and exoticization in 90 swift, heightened minutes. A two-hander, it hopes with all its battered heart that we will, by the end, see Afong in her full humanity, and through her see this nation with clearer eyes. But it is not optimistic.

“The Chinese Lady” was first staged in New York in 2018, when Ralph B. Peña directed a profoundly affecting, smaller-scale production for his Ma-Yi Theater Company at Theater Row, on 42nd Street. That was of course before the pandemic — before a U.S. president scapegoated an entire population by calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” and before physical attacks on people of Asian descent became an ever-present threat in New York and across the country.

Peña’s current Barrington Stage Company-Ma Yi production, presented by Ma-Yi and the Public, retains the same gorgeous cast, with Shannon Tyo as Afong and Daniel K. Isaac as Atung, her cynical, deadpan interpreter. (Cindy Im and Jon Norman Schneider play the roles at some performances.) On Junghyun Georgia Lee’s gilt-framed set — simpler and more capacious than the one she designed for Theater Row — the show is more anguished, more mournful, more urgent than before, and sometimes that makes it heavy-handed.

Tyo and Isaac’s chemistry, though, has only deepened. In their bickering, their loneliness, their not-quite-solidarity, they remain entirely winning and occasionally devastating. (From here, proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the show.)

When they are cut loose from each other, after decades of symbiosis — and years at a P.T. Barnum museum — there is no more forlorn sight than Atung alone, a tiny cog in Barnum’s exploitative machine.

Long gone by then are the glamorous days when Afong toured to far-flung American cities and met a president — “your emperor, Andrew Jackson,” she calls him, to us. (If that’s an endearing misunderstanding of his title, it’s also a pretty accurate read on his expansionism.) In a revolting reenactment, we watch him touch her foot: a cowboy barbarian looking down on her even as he sexualizes her.

Afong, for all her childlike naivete when she first arrived, has always been hungry for knowledge of the United States. She speaks of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Manifest Destiny; the Chinese men building the railroad out West; the people who were already living on these lands in 1492. She finds the country fascinating and its self-mythologizing wildly overblown.

It is not the place where she thought she would spend her life; she believed she would return to her family, not make a home in a place where she is not sure she belongs. When she realizes she will have to do that on her own — breaking out of the box where American culture wants to keep her, under its hostile gaze — she becomes a roiling force of indignation and self-determination.

That happens in the play’s penultimate scene, and Tyo absolutely kills it. So it’s unfortunate that the final scene undermines her with ill-conceived design.

As Afong recounts horrific 19th-century acts of brutality against Chinese Americans, projections (by Shawn Duan) that had been subtle and mostly static throughout the show start flashing historical headlines and illustrations, then news coverage of contemporary anti-Asian attacks.

The impulse is understandable — to make utterly clear that Chinese Americans, long the targets of racist violence, are still menaced as outsiders in their own country. But the intimate power of Suh’s text and Tyo’s performance would have made that connection potently on their own.

The production’s final, upstaging image is a wall of disembodied eyes: a digital crowd, creepy and cold. It’s meant, presumably, to expand our sympathy into the wider world. But whatever moral reckoning the play sets in motion occurs between Afong — living, breathing avatar of generations — and the audience. Yet the lights go dark on her.

We do, by the end of the play, fully see Afong Moy. In that last moment, let us look.

‘The Chinese Lady’

Through April 10 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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