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First look: ‘The Chinese Lady’ at American Stage

Bill DeYoung



Che'Li, left, stars in "The Chinese Lady," directed by Gregory Keng Strasser, right. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

During an early rehearsal of The Chinese Lady, director Gregory Keng Strasser told his cast that “Some people will not live to hear a discordant note come to harmony again.”

For Che’Li, who has the title role in the American Stage production opening tonight, that statement was a brilliant metaphor and a succinct summation about the relationship between the American public of the mid 1800s and Afong Moy, the play’s title character.

“I think she very much lives in that discordance,” Che’Li says. “And her life is a testament to that discordance.”

Opening Friday with previews tonight and Thursday, The Chinese Lady is historically based. Afong Moy, 14, was taken from her home in Canton City, China and put on exhibit – a sideshow act – in the United States of America.

Playwright Lloyd Suh worked with what’s known – that Moy was stared at, gawked at and most likely hollered at while Americans watched her, in traditional Chinese garb, shuffle back and forth with bound feet, making tea and talking enthusiastically about her homeland.

She was under what historians call “the white gaze.” It’s believed that Moy was the first Chinese woman to set foot on American soil.

“What we don’t know is what her inner life was,” Strasser says. “We know she was put on display – she was a performer for the Peale Museum, and subsequently a performer for P.T. Barnum. But we don’t know her inner thoughts because we’ve never found any journal entries, or letters she was writing or sending.

“She disappears from the historical record shortly after the P.T. Barnum performances. So much of the remainder of her life is shrouded in mystery.”

Both director and actor were astonished at Moy’s resiliency – in Suh’s script, at least.

“Her self-understanding of herself in the world is at odds with the world’s understanding of her,” offers Che’Li. “But she does not clock that. Or at least it takes some time for her to really live in that tension, and understand that discomfort.

“In the play, Afong Moy is this beautiful, enlivened, animated spirit who has this hope to be a cultural ambassador between China and America. And yet that is very much not the case. So there’s a mis-alignment of expectation that she has to contend with.

“No one is taking this as profoundly as she is. And I think that is really heartbreaking, because she has so much hope.”

There is one other character – Moy’s translator and “handler,” Atung (played by Jacob Yeh). And there’s no “fourth wall,” Strasser says. “The play is a dialogue between Afong Moy and the audience.”

Adds Che’Li: “Even though there’s just two of us onstage, the audience is a character. What Lloyd Suh has done is made the audience a chronic thread in the play. We talk to the audience.

“That will animate the text and our performances, a whole other way. Because the audience is such a part of the text, and the play itself, and the world-building of the play, it’s ‘who are we telling this story to?’ Each performance is going to be different, and that’s the beauty of live theater.”

The Chinese Lady runs through Feb. 25. Find tickets here.










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