Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Chinese Lady
Sami Ma plays Afong Moy, a 14-year-old brought to the United States in 1834 as a showpiece to attract customers to buy imported Chinese furniture and décor. Albert Park is Atung, Afong's translator who, despite initially calling himself "irrelevant," adds dimension to the play's commentary.
Ma comes onto a bare, slightly elevated thrust stage in the Playhouse's Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre as herself, wearing modern shredded blue jeans and a striped t-shirt; she dons a caricature of a Chinese costume and plants herself in a square-framed imported wooden chair at center stage. Initially, she delivers quick, good-natured remarks about how she came to America, about her tiny feet (bound and misshapen when she was a child, objects of public obsession in America), about tea rituals, and more. Over time, her comments show increasing awareness of the racist and sexist ways she is perceived.
Park's Atung officiously patrols the perimeter of the stage offering forced smiles and explanations to the audience, while "translating" her Chinese remarks (delivered in English) into simplistic statements that diminish her intelligence and individuality. In an especially telling moment, Afong meets U.S. President Andrew Jackson (an actual event). She makes thoughtful observations about American culture, which Atung paraphrases and significantly diminishes their sophistication. Park simultaneously slides in and out of a drawling caricature of Southerner Jackson's thoughtless observations which are not truthfully conveyed to the young woman.
The play progresses through a half-dozen scenes as Atung draws a surrounding curtain to mark the passage of time. With each subsequent reveal, Afong is a few years older, differently costumed and more conscious of her awkward circumstances, while Atung is increasingly weary of his secondary role.
Afong Moy was a real person, although her time being toured to 19th-century American cities, including Cincinnati, for fascinated shoppers to gawk at is only reflected piecemeal in the historical record, a few newspaper clippings and advertisements. The playwright has filled in imagined details to underscore the message of exploitation, and he extends her story well beyond her last known real moment when she was replaced by a younger Chinese woman in P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City.
Ma's portrait of Afong Moy evolves in subtle but telling ways. At first, she is excited to be perhaps the first Chinese woman to set foot in America and to experience a culture different from her own. But as time passes and she is not, as promised, allowed to return to her home, she has increasingly insightful observations–never honestly shared with those flocking to see her–about their inability to understand her personal circumstances and humanity. As Suh's text has the character comment in an accelerated final section through moments of later 19th-century history and beyond to 2023, Ma brings strong emotion to her character's and her own desire to speak truth and express her hopes for more understanding.
Park's performance as Atung is more understated, given his forced self-description that he is irrelevant. Nevertheless, he has an emotional solo scene when the character's deferential presence drops away to reveal conflicted feelings and observations. This subtle divergence adds depth to the show's messages, and Park handles them expertly, revealing that his character's perspective is also relevant.
There is a kind of irony in Suh's conception of this tale and its many current productions across the U.S. to largely white mainstream theater audiences. The show's popularity reflects Afong Moy being paraded and showcased for unthinking 19th-century audiences. But it is also a way to point out the current lived experience of Asian American women, who continue to be perceived as "foreigners." This play debuted just before the worldwide pandemic, often blamed for its origins in China. Such unthinking oversimplification demonized Asian Americans, a contemporary echo of the misunderstanding of immigrants in earlier eras.
That makes The Chinese Lady an especially pertinent work in today's America. This Playhouse production is a powerful reminder to avoid stereotypical thinking. Afong Moy's final remark is telling: "If we take the time to really look at each other. To really look at each other. Then we might see, through all that vastness and variance, something true and real and wonderful. It is a beautiful thing to look at something long enough to really understand it. But it is so much more beautiful to be looked at long enough to be understood."
Playgoers can take in a thoughtful display of posters about racism and sexism raised by this show in the Shelterhouse lobby.
The Chinese Lady runs through April 20, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park, adjacent to Mt. Adams, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888.