“I don’t feel the need to be a role model, it’s just something that’s been thrust upon me. Teachers and a lot of Asian-American organizations, for example, say to me, ‘We need you to come and speak to us because you’re a role model.’ [..] Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they’re writing a very specific story.”
– Amy Tan, interview with Salon magazine (1995)
I continue to be fascinated by the life Sara Baartman, and repulsed by the events after her death. If you’ve never heard of her, I strongly suggest looking up her life story. You may think you know what cultural racism and misogyny look like, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more damning example than Baartman, a Black African woman who was dehumanized, objectified, paraded, and dissected for amusement of White audiences who’d paid admission. And I don’t used those verbs hyperbolically – this is all a matter of record.
You can see, then, why Baartman’s life was the first to come to mind as I sat watching The Chinese Lady, a dramatization of the life of Afong Moy. Officially, Moy was the first Chinese citizen to immigrate to the United States, but that’s an oversimplification. Moy’s arrival at age 14 was purely a business transaction conducted without her consent. Professional hucksters Nathaniel and Frederic Carne make a deal to take her to the US, where she’s displayed to the public like the first moving clock.
The year is 1834 and for a mere 25¢ (15 for kids), audience can see this genuine Chinese woman (played by Rinabeth Apostol) enact the common customs of her culture. This includes, but is not limited to, using a pair of sticks to eat her food, drinking tea from the far East as she shares the story of its 4,000-year origin, and walking around the room on her small, bound feet. And she does this all with a smile. Always with a smile.
And always at her side is Atung (Will Dao). By his own description, “Atong is irrelevant”. That doesn’t change the fact that this man – Afong’s caretaker, assistant, and translator – is vital to each and every thing she does.
I dare say that was the part that stuck with me the most. Not just the era-specific racism, as that was to be expected (the pair’s meeting with then-Pres. Andrew Jackson takes a predictably tasteless turn); not just the way Afong sees the hypocrisy of the US calling itself free when slavery is still prevalent; not just way Afong’s extended time in the US adapts her to its attitudes. No, what really stuck with me is the way Afong is put on display because she represents the White Western world’s idealized image of an asian woman: demure; doll-like; complacent (or so we think). So, too, does Atung resemble something of a eunuch as he stands at Afong’s side with nary a hint of any sexuality towards her or the White women in the audience (or so we think). Playwright Lloyd Suh knows that the more self-awareness they display, the less value they have to their… employers? Benefactors? I don’t quite know what to call the Carne brothers, but the fact that their responsibility is later taken over by PT Barnum should be a good clue.
Suh’s script is strongest when revealing that Afong’s understanding of the world increases the longer she’s meant to be kept away from it. There are moments when the action seems a bit redundant, but that’s the point: Afong’s routine is done day in and day out for years. If we get sick of hearing it, imagine how she must have felt always saying it. It also succeeds in the specifics of how Afong and Atung’s relationship is defined. She’s utterly reliant on him in her gilded caged (a gorgeous round, wooden chamber, impeccably realized by Jacquelyn Scott), but treats him no better than any princess would a royal servant – this despite the fact that he’s the only other Chinese person she sees. And Atung’s unspoken urges aren’t completely noble: near the middle of the play, he’s given a soliloquy in which he lets free his frustrations – sexual and societal – that require him to “look, don’t touch”. He tells us this so that he doesn’t risk saying it to her.
Though Suh’s script gets a bit too long-winded in its epilogue, it’s to the credit of director Mina Morita that 1 – the play does indeed clock in at 90 minutes, and 2 – nothing crucial is lost in doing so. That is to say, the show doesn’t feel the least bit rushed. Morita (artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre) has her cast bask in the long silences and unspoken moments because she knows that they’re the moments that will most linger with the audience.
So too does her winning two-person cast bask in “limitations” of Scott’s stage. Off-hand, I can’t recall having seen Will Dao before, but his touching portrayal of Atung – a man of outer pride and inner frustration – is a fine elevation of a character trope that’s frequently stereotyped. Though he occasionally enters Afong’s chamber, he has an amazing ability to stand outside of it and be invisible, unless he wants attention drawn to him. I last saw Rinabeth Apostol last year in Crowded Fire’s hilarious (co-)world premiere of Two Mile Hollow. In that show, she played “straight woman” to an outlandish family of blue blood characters. Here, she’s tasked with not only portraying a real from teen age to seniority, but one who assimilates into her adopted culture in unexpected ways. Her transformation from demure 14-year-old to swagger-heavy adult is one of the play’s best surprises, and Apostol pulls it off with flying colors.
Speaking of colors, the bright woods, silks, and jades of Scott’s amazing set – a raised platform surrounded by retractable green silk curtains – are matched by Abra Berman’s lush costuming. A Chinese queue is a notoriously difficult hairstyle to pull off for costumers and wig-makers, yet the one worn throughout by Atung was well-done. (I honestly don’t know if Afong’s ever-changing hair is all Apostol’s or pulled off with the help of extensions?) As the characters’ fortunes change for better and worse, Wen-Ling Liao’s lights and Sara Huddleston’s sounds provide subtle shifts that set the mood without distracting. This is particularly true in the finale, which – though long – is given a magical realism thanks to the aforementioned lights and a choice voiceover.
Good work all around.
As we took our seats in the Magic, we did so knowing that this was the first show of Loretta Greco’s final season as the company’s artistic director. Her stepping down was announced mere days before the show, and – like many recent former ADs – she leaves an impressive (if imperfect) legacy in her wake. It’s appropriate then that the first show of her final go ‘round is about how stories linger long after the storytellers have passed on. A few times before on this site, I’ve mentioned the old saying about how a person “dies three times”: first when their heart stops; the second when they’re buried; the third when their name is spoken for the last time.
Afong Moy’s story is one that’s been all-but-forgotten. Yet, this production and all involved restore her to life that pays her tribute whilst recognizing her complexity. In other words, it does the one thing her handlers and audiences never it: it gives her humanity. The one courtesy we should all expect is the one many of us are so often denied outright.
The Chinese Lady is scheduled to run until the 3rd of November at The Magic Theatre in the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.