by Lynne Menefee and Herb Merrick
Everyman Theatre is presenting the Baltimore premiere of “The Chinese Lady,” directed by Nana Dakin. Written by Lloyd Suh, the play follows the story of Afong Moy and her interpreter, Atung, played respectively and powerfully by Everyman resident company member, Tuyết Thị Phạm, and Đavid Lee Huỳnh. It is based on the true story of Afong Moy, deemed the first documented Chinese woman to set foot in America, in 1834. Two American merchants, Nathan and Frederic Carne, with the help of ship captain B.T. Obear, decided to import Chinese goods in the early 1800s and felt that exhibiting a Chinese woman would attract interest in their merchandise. They arranged, with her father, for Afong to go to America, promising to return her after two years (which they did not allow and she could not afford to do herself). It was believed she was about 14-19 years old (in the play she starts at 14). She could not speak English at first, but communicated through her interpreter, Atung.
…has important things to say and leaves an impression that lingers long after it ends.
The public was charged a small fee and the exhibitions mostly occurred in museums, presenting Afong amid Chinese furniture, décor, and handicrafts. Through Atung, Afong would explain Chinese social customs, use chopsticks to eat Chinese food, and sometimes display her bound feet on a raised pillow or by walking around the exhibit. These exhibitions were presented at various locations such as Baltimore’s Peale Museum and included a tour of the country and a meeting in 1835 with President Andrew Jackson.
The play imagines how Afong Moy may have felt and gives a voice to the history of the Chinese people, and others, in a developing America. She is at first hopeful and excited about her role in creating more understanding between the two cultures. But as time passes, her initial fame and the positive reaction by the public soured as Chinese immigration grew and she became more objectified. As she sees the darker side of the world, she comments on British and American colonialism and appropriation, the hypocrisy of slavery, and the displacement of the indigenous people (the infamous “The Trail of Tears”) by President Jackson. She notes the contributions (notably the building of the transcontinental railroad) as well as recorded acts of racism, including the Chinese Exclusion Acts beginning in 1882, and unspeakable violence as more Chinese became successful in this country. After a stint as a P.T. Barnum curiosity, she was replaced by younger import. But in fact, we don’t know what happened to Atung and after 1851, Afong Moy disappears from public record.
Afong Moy speaks to the audience directly in English as does her interpreter, breaking the fourth wall as though we are the ones who have paid the fee to gaze upon her. But she sees us too. In the beginning, there is tension between her and Atung which provides some humor and witty interactions. The passing of time is represented by Atung slowly walking across the stage to close and open the black curtain to a beautiful set designed by Meghan Raham, setting the Chinese items off with black, paneled walls and purposeful lighting design by Emma Deane. Each time, Afong Moy is in a new costume (beautifully designed by Debra Kim Sivigny) and tells us the year and her age, location, and comments American culture and seminole events in the country and in the lives of the Chinese immigrants.
As the years go by, there are also poignant moments when she talks about feeling trapped in a box or like an animal in a zoo, of missing her family, and dreams of going to San Francisco and being with her own people. Atung remains distant and stoic (there are possible reasons that are revealed in Atung’s surprising, fever dream monologue). During the meeting with Jackson, despite the fact that she has intelligent things to say, Atung dumbs down her responses to the president. The ultimate humiliation is when Jackson wants to touch her tiny feet, referencing carnivals and sideshows. Atung’s translation to her is more kind and protective.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“The Chinese Lady” runs through November 19, 2023 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 410-752-2208 Monday through Friday, 10 am-4 pm or Saturday, 12 noon-4 pm, or go online.