The Toronto Theatre Review: Studio 180/fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s The Chinese Lady
She sits, silent and still, full of hope, staring out as we file in to music that doesn’t quite fit the frame. We take in the visual like a crowd observing a caged peacock, delighted and intrigued, as a man sweeps the ground around her. She is newly arrived, this Chinese young woman tells us, sold for service to be displayed like a rare creature in a gilded cage. She performs with precision for the entitled colonial crowds who gasp and gaze at the exotically crafted foreigner so unusual that they gladly pay for this kind of overt exhibition. She is Afong Moy, perfectly and dynamically portrayed by Rosie Simon (Factory Theatre/ fu-GeN’s acquiesce), playing a role within a frame, presenting an ethnicity for the sole sake of cultural curiosity, hoping it will make a difference. But the air doesn’t feel right within the square, as it becomes more disturbing with each timely rotation. The years tick by as we watch with a growing sense of discomfort The Chinese Lady diving deeper and deeper into the muck of America at its worst.
Written with an expert force by Lloyd Suh (The Far Country), The Chinese Lady, now playing at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto by Studio 180 Theatre and fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company, finds power and force in the unraveling of this distinct form of scientific racism over years of confinement. It engulfs it most delicately inside a sideshow format that emphasizes the barbaric structure that has basically imprisoned the first Chinese woman to set foot on U.S. soil. And if that doesn’t bring forth discomfort, I’m not quite sure what would. Afong Moy is just 14 years old when we first are introduced to her with the help of her irrelevant manservant and guard, Atung, played with a deep sense of purpose by John Ng 伍健琪 (fu-GEN Theatre’s CHING CHONG CHINAMAN). She is alone and basically enslaved within this artifice, delivered from her now-faraway family in Guangzhou Province in 1834, and indebted to her ’employers’, although she is never paid nor is her debt ever fulfilled. She has been put on display within these four impenetrable, yet barless walls so that crowds of European Americans (a fine and brilliant distinction from Indigenous Americans) as “The Chinese Lady” to be gawked at and exploited for twenty-five cents per adult, ten cents per child.
“Next, I will eat and you will watch me“, she tells us, at first with a smile in an attempt to please, but as she winds her way through the country over decades, her celebrated sideshow experience dampens that put-upon smile, and the darkness of what is being done to her starts to envelop the stage. The framework is startling, making the applause prompted by Atung most uncomfortable and disconcerting, as if we are in on the gawking and part of the problem. And maybe we are. We are being pushed forward, into examining our role in the voyeuristic imprisonment of this woman, and with each passing year, the sentence of her servitude deepens our distress and expands our understanding of this horrific type of racism and exploitation. The “cultural importance” of her presentation, all smiles and bows, shreds its luster as we follow The Chinese Lady down an alarming dive deep into the cultural acceptability of this enslaved exploitation as we begin to witness the darkening of her mind.
The play is a compellingly disturbing unpacking, and as directed with a simple sharp grace by Marjorie Chan 陳以珏 (Gateway Theatre’s China Doll), The Chinese Lady never lets us off the hook, pushing forth the horrors of what this country has down to women of color, whether Black, Asian, Indigenous, or otherwise. We can’t look away, not from the formulation beautifully crafted by set designer Echo Zhou 周芷會 (Studio 180’s My Sister’s Rage), with delicately determined lighting from designer Kimberly Purtell (Studio 180’s Oslo), perfectly executed costuming by Jung-Hye Kim (Factory’s Praire Nurse), and solid sound and compositions by Gloria Mok 莫嘉詠 (fu-GeN’s Walk the Walk), nor can we not see the cultural importance of how “the story goes…“
They speak of a story that is better and more beautiful than the truth, living made up inside a deep desperate dream of China. We watch the pair live in too much hope, with little reality, and no literal hold on the truth, executing a vision that is less Chinese than the reality that they struggle to remember. Inside the director’s notes, Chan compares “Afong Moy’s relatively more ‘humane’ exhibition to the horror of ‘human zoos’ where individuals were enslaved in harrowing circumstances and put on display in often hostile surroundings.” This is an idea that horrifies beyond anything that my mind is able to comprehend. I couldn’t stop thinking of my own personal discomfort as a child when taken to the Zoo, watching imprisoned animals living out their existence in a pseudo-reality that was formed to mimic something that it was most definitely not, freedom and a true space to roam. And to fully understand the actual truth of her situation (from reading the articles made available on Studio 180’s webpage for The Chinese Lady, like this one: Afong Moy: Uncovering the History Behind The Chinese Lady), the immense weight of the abusive imprisonment of Afong Moy just gets heavier and heavier.
We are set up, in the most profound and wise manner by a playwright who has captured history and executed its design perfectly, implanting us unbeknownst as ‘cultural connoisseurs’ and ‘voyeurs’ of an uncomfortable sort, and forcing us to bear witness to the caging of The Chinese Lady. The result is upsetting, disheartening, and completely outstanding, as we sit playing out our roles seating in front of her subjugation. It’s all for the sake of some brutal inhumane cultural curiosity by a privileged colonial class who we know will eventually tire of her, and toss her away when something more exotic is presented for their amusement. Yet, this play holds us tight and never lets us look away from the barbaric curated exhibition of systematic racism and the exploitation of The Chinese Lady, the first of her kind in America. I did not know anything about Afong May and her zoo-like treatment before seeing this play, and it’s true what my theatre companion said of the play that “it’s a sobering reminder of some of the atrocities of the past against Asians in North America.” A telling that I will never forget. Worth its weight in gold and coin.
“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“. – The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh.