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American Stage’s latest ends on a controversial note

Bill DeYoung



American Stage’s production of the Lloyd Suh drama The Chinese Lady got even more dramatic last week, as the lead performer was replaced, for the final five performances, by an understudy.

Che’Li, who played Afong Moy, allegedly the first Chinese woman ever to set foot in America (in the 1840s), was dismissed by American Stage after making an unauthorized political statement during the performance on Wednesday, Feb. 21.

Unknown to the play’s production team, Che’Li, a New York-based performer, wore a keffiyeh – a traditional Middle Eastern headpiece – under their costume. During the last scene, Che’Li revealed the keffiyeh, along with upper-chest body art reading “Free Palestine!”

“Last night, our stage was used to make a personal political statement beyond the scope of the art,” administrators wrote the next day in a Facebook post. “The views and thoughts of our artists are as diverse as the stories we tell, however, it is imperative not to ever allow those personal views to distract from the message of the art as written by the playwright and crafted by the cast and crew.  We value our diverse cast, crew, staff and patrons.”

The announcement was then made that understudy Mona Kim would finish the run of The Chinese Lady.

Che’Li was paid for the full run of performances.

“Getting to work on the regional production of this piece brought me to Florida and I would have never thought I’d be here to do this kind of work,” Che’Li earlier told Watermark Online. “I’ve met people who see me, who may not have the same shared identities as me but who understand how important it is for me to be a queer and trans body in this space. That unspoken affinity has meant so much to me.”

In the wake of the incident, the Tampa Bay theater community lit up social media with both support and condemnation.

Jacob Yeh, the only other actor in The Chinese Lady, wrote in a lengthy blog post that he could see both sides of the argument … to a point. “There are some narratives going around that are making this unfortunate series of events seem like it’s about ‘Free Palestine!’ and whether artists should face repercussions over free speech or what they wear, when it’s just simply not,” he said.

There was, he pointed out, no keffiyeh, or slogan, in the Afong Moy costume design. “I get that there are things going on in the world that affect us, sometimes deeply, but we have a professional duty to know what our job is and to do it,” Yeh wrote.

“Does it sometimes feel silly that we are playing pretend and dress-up while things, terrible atrocities, are going on in the world? Sure. But we either have to do our job as is stipulated in our contract, or we decide to do something else or something extra, but then we have to realize that there will be consequences.”

Related reading: First look: ‘The Chinese Lady’ at American Stage

Monday afternoon, the Catalyst received the following statement from American Stage’s Producing Artistic Director Helen R. Murray:

Trust, while not the only element, is an important element to creating theatre. A playwright must trust us, as the producer, to honor our word and contract, when they allow us to produce their work. Actors must trust their scene partners. Producers must trust the directors. Stage management must trust the cast and crew. We are all trusted to do a job and tell a story that honors the intention of the one who created the work.

Everyone who is connected to telling that story is trusted to honor their word, and their contract, to uphold the integrity of the story that the playwright intended to tell, in the way that the producer had permission to tell it. And it’s equally important that our intention is to walk in integrity and actively collaborate with one another as we do that.

It may sound harsh to speak of contracts when the people in question acted out of passion for a cause. But contracts are not just legal documents, they are a promise that we make so that the baseline of our operations is one of safety. Only in safe spaces can we as artists create work that is brave. The changes that were made to The Chinese Lady by the performer broke that promise. They took away the voice of the writer, the team, the staff and the message of the show itself. And while, yes, it was done to make a personal political statement, the actual personal political statement has nothing to do with our ultimate decision to bring our understudy to the stage. It has everything to do with protecting and managing the trust that is given to us by every playwright who allows us to produce their work, and every collaborative team that works to bring theatre to our stage. This time, an actor wanted to make a political statement; the next time, who knows what justification could be given to making an unapproved artistic change.

Our Code of Conduct here at American Stage as well as the contracts our artists sign are a vital part of the creation of our safe space. The breach of that safe space is hardon everyone involved. Furthermore, to watch our own community attack staff or artists affiliated with the production while they simply work to do their jobs is just heartbreaking.

Our staff and production team dealt with this incident in a mindful and caring way. Even in bringing in the understudy and in the investigation of what transpired, we remained professional and calm and acted with integrity. Not everyone will agree with how we chose to move forward, but those who were there, and those who handled the fallout internally, make me proud to lead this organization. What an incredible, caring, thoughtful and supportive group of theatre makers they are – and they deserve accolades not condemnation.

It is never our goal to blemish anyone’s reputation, especially that of those we have done amazing work with, and without question, the work and art we created with the original cast for The Chinese Lady was magnificent! It is unfortunate that the narrative constructed has been intentionally skewed away from the facts. Those involved know the truth (see the statement from Jacob Yeh) . It is our hope that our community will continue to trust us to honor our word as we bring powerful stories to the stage.

And on a final note – the play that Lloyd Suh penned about Afong Moy is the conversation and art we intended to put out into the community. Afong was brought to the U.S. at the age of 14 and never returned home. Her life and her existence were on display for decades. She was subject to the gaze, the whispers and the objectification that erased her true self and diminished her to a side show. Suh’s work is brilliant in its capacity to bring us into her world and does its job of helping us take the time to see each other more clearly. If there can be any lasting message from The Chinese Lady, I would like the world to not forget her, and for people to be considered and intentional when seeking to understand another person. Thank you to Lloyd for his incredible play.

And to Afong – your spirit and story will live on and we are proud to be a part of it.

Helen R. Murray

















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  1. Avatar

    Marvin Honig

    February 27, 2024at5:29 pm

    How would you feel if she displayed an Israel flag and a sign saying “Hamas murdered and kidnapped women and children?”

  2. Avatar

    Karen Garcia

    February 26, 2024at4:38 pm

    That’s unfortunate all around. I saw the play twice, once starring Che’Li and once with her understudy. Che’Li was extraordinary in the role. I’ve never seen an actor embody a role like Che’Le did in her portrayal of Afong Moy. I’m sorry I missed the controversial event, that would have been THE one to see!

  3. Avatar

    Steve D

    February 26, 2024at4:23 pm

    Nobody paid for admission to see her political speech. This is why I don’t attend plays or so-called comedy shows any more. It’s mostly an exercise in personal ego by the artists and performers.

  4. Avatar

    Mirela S.

    February 26, 2024at4:13 pm

    THANK YOU, Che’Li. You should be very proud of what you did. Contracts feel insigficant when one realizes that thousands of people are being murdered for stupid and evil reasons. Thank you for your protest.

  5. Avatar


    February 26, 2024at4:09 pm

    You go to the theater to enjoy a cultural event, not a political messaging (unless it’s advertised as that type of play). Of course, I can see why a person representing a Chinese national wouldn’t see an issue with repping another state with terrorist ties and a horrible human rights record. Way to go St. Pete, we’re becoming NYC south!

  6. Avatar

    John Strauss

    February 26, 2024at4:05 pm

    Glad the actor was replaced. Woke on steroids nonsense and lacking education on the whole issue.

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