As if taking TimeLine Theatre’s name literally, the main character of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady walks us through her personal timeline from age 14 until her 80s. Not much seems to change on the surface. The traditional garb that Afong Moy wears and the room she inhabits – a study in Chinese décor – have mostly minor adjustments during her years as a novelty act. But make no mistake: profound transitions occur within her and beyond her, as the United States, where she remains a permanent alien, changes too.
TimeLine, per its custom, provides historical context in an exhibit mounted on an inside wall of the theater. The little that is actually known about the first Chinese woman on U.S. soil is not uplifting. Afong Moy’s family in Canton sold her to American businessmen in 1834 for what was supposed to be a two-year stint to help promote Chinese merchandise in the U.S. What we experience while watching The Chinese Lady suggests the freakish fishbowl into which she was submerged upon arrival.
A Woman Without Agency on TimeLine Theatre’s Stage
Afong Moy – a name crafted by the men who controlled her destiny – is relentlessly on display as a human artifact. For 25 cents, she explains, the public can watch her eat tiny bits of vegetables with chopsticks and walk in the ornate shoes that hide her disfigured bound feet. Actress Mi Kang rolls perkiness into precision while repeating those tiny nibbles and tiny steps. Clinging to her mission of introducing Americans to Chinese culture, Afong maintains a veneer of goodwill – even as P.T. Barnum takes over her act and eliminates the onstage meal for budgetary reasons. She continues to project American optimism so ironically that this viewer felt utter heartbreak when she describes the Chinese immigrants who came after her arrival to work, and often die, laying railroad track from coast to coast.
A lesser woman, so deprived of agency, would have died in spirit if not in body.
The show is largely a monologue with the audience, occasionally interrupted by interactions with Atung, the young Chinese man who physically raises the curtain and translates Afong’s presentation from Cantonese into English. How does he happen to speak fluent English? No one knows and it doesn’t matter anyway because, we are told, he is “irrelevant.” Glenn Obrero brings much to his smaller role. Many scenes into the two-character script, he conveys just how tight his character’s emotional straightjacket has become as he eyes the rope that lifts the curtain. No words, just an overwhelming despair that convinces us that Atung sees a hangman’s noose in the gently-swaying golden cord.
The Chinese Lady’s Multicultural Commentary
Directed at a steady pace by Helen Young, The Chinese Lady uses a simple format for a complex commentary on multiculturalism in all its limitations, superficialities and hypocrisies. This viewer wished for earlier signs of cracks in Afong and Atung’s psychological armor and more evidence of what must have been difficult offstage lives. But the cracks do finally emerge. For those in search of hidden angles, this production reveals an invisible woman who is right there in plain sight.
Thru June 18, 2022
Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays at 8 p.m.
Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Mi Kang (Afong Moy) and Glenn Obrero (Atung)
Arnel Sancianco (Scenic Designer, he/him), Izumi Inaba (Costume Designer, she/her), John Culbert (Lighting Designer, he/him), Forrest Gregor (Co-Sound Designer, he/him), André Pluess (Co-Sound Designer, he/him), Rowen Doe (Properties Designer, they/them/he/him), Eva Breneman (Dialect Director, she/her), Yiwen Wu (Dramaturg, she/her), and Jill Yetsky (Stage Manager, she/her).
About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.