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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Chinese Lady — InterAct Theatre Company

 The exotic remains a novelty until habit, constancy, and/or assimilation make it more familiar.

       Think how many foods, from spaghetti to fajitas, from borscht to pho were considered new and exciting until they become commonplace. And, perhaps, cast aside for the next trend. Impossible burger, anyone?

        “The Chinese Lady,” by Lloyd Suh, at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre through Sunday, November 21, uses the American experience of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to land on American shores to show the persistence of novelty, its fading, its lasting vestiges, and its quaint idiocies. Suh covers many bases and takes different, sometimes diametric, attitudes towards Afong Moy and the American public’s response to her. He employs the humor of the knowing, e.g. Afong Moy being aware of how people regard her and being amused, stoic, or irritated by it; irony; contempt; popular myth; and viewpoints underscoring both the coy and the insidious in telling a story of a woman, her times, a society that becomes more ethnically diverse, and a society that holds on to some ideas long after they go past the outdated to the ridiculous.

        It’s a smart play with many facets. At its best it makes you think about how people judge others based on nationality (often confused when it comes to Asians or Latinos) while offering a glimpse at one woman’s experience in another time.

        Oh, and one man’s. Afong Moy has a guardian, companion, caregiver, and translator, Atung, with her.  But’s he’s irrelevant.

        Suh, writing in the third decade of the 21st century, a time of identity and dicta about the correct way of looking at it, can get a little too cute on occasion, not so much exaggerating as playing to the audience whose agreement and assent he seems to expect, but such indulgences never mar “The Chinese Lady.” The overall play, its overriding intelligence, its engrossing contexts, and a strong, carefully nuanced production directed by Justin Jain for InterAct more than pardon the lapse or wink to the allegedly enlightened.

        Like Suh’s play, Jain’s production also has occasional excesses, usually when the director or lead actress Bi Jean Ngo go beyond letting one of Suh’s lines do the work to signal, “You know what I mean.” “Isn’t that so?,” or “Remind you of anyone?”

          Also as with Suh, this overemphasizing or editorializing is rare, but Jain’s production would be more elegant and poignant without them. Suh, Jain, and Ngo are clever and inventive enough to convey subtleties and commentary without overplaying it. The simpler stage business is, the more Suh’s points, insights, and revelations land with a sting. The more pushed, the more Suh’s perceptions, or Afong Moy’s, seem precious rather than shrewd or affecting.

        Afong Moy does not come to the United States in search of freedom, opportunity, or any kind of life purportedly better than she enjoys with her father and only family in their Guangdong village around 1830. At age 14, she is enlisted and brought to American to enhance a display of Chinese decorative imports at New York’s Peale Museum (founded by Philadelphian Rubens Peale following in his father, Charles Willson Peale’s footsteps).

       Afong Moy’s primary job is to add one more touch of artifice, the pièce de resistance or bec fin of artifice, to a display set up by commercial importers. In her “authentic” Chinese room, which Suh has Afong Moy tell us is unlike any room she’s ever seen or that exists in Guangdong or any village of which she’s aware, Afong Moy is the first China doll, a diminutive, foreign (yes, exotic) oddity surrounded by vases, blue wear, paintings of sunsets, and tea paraphernalia which she’ll use to pour tea in an alleged authentic ceremony.

      Afong Moy is part of a myth that she, as designed by the importers who hired and installed her at Peale’s, unwittingly and perhaps unwillingly, is positioned to perpetuate.

        She does not know what the people paying first 25 cents, later a dollar, per ticket are saying, but Atung is there to translate, and Ngo’s Afong, who frequently and appropriately breaks situation to comment, informs us they are generally expressing clichéd canards, akin to the wonder tourists spout when they marvel that a four-year-old they met in Beijing, or Guangzhou, speaks perfect Chinese.

        Afong Moy is an object. The shape of her eyes, for instance, are not explained by evolutionary permutations decided over centuries for optimum survival in Southeast Asia, but as a source of amazement. The same, as we hear, holds true for her hair, her mode of dress, and what might be a legitimate reason for curiosity, her bound feet.

         As part of her routine for each new quarter-spending patron, Afong Moy takes a walk around her room, pours tea, explains the importance of tea, looks wan, giggles coyly, and makes gestures that work to her real purpose, getting the punters to admire the wares importers want them to buy.

        Bi Jean Ngo reinforces her reputation for being a resourceful, disarming performer by the variety by which she presents Afong Moy’s poses, giggles, patter (translated by Atung), and rituals. Ngo plays a woman putting on a show, and she takes that her cue from that, showing us what Afong Moy shows the crowds at Peale’s, relaxing Afong Moy’s act at times to put some spin on what is occurring or providing a glimpse of what Afong Moy, the 14-year-old beneath the persona, is thinking and feeling.

       We also hear from Afong Moy’s diary.

       “The Chinese Lady” accomplishes so much in these early scenes. Primarily, it exposes the seeds, roots, and sprouts of myths, misconceptions, and implanted ideas that form a long-term vision of what a person, culture, or person from a culture is like.

        I know I bristle when people have or, worse, state pre-conceived notions about me because they hear I’m gay, Jewish, or white, all traits that tell something within a set but no complete story. (I laugh particularly at the white part. I happen to have no pigment. Milk and snow are jealous of my paleness. But I’m Jewish, and it is also impossible to relate to many how Jews don’t consider themselves “white.” The only way to bring the point home is to mention how quickly a Nazi or Klansman would kill me if the ethnicity behind my pallor was known.)

        “The Chinese Lady” is, among other things, an Asian playwright taking the opportunity to bristle and doing so with anger and irony tempered by wit and fitting ridicule of the person who accepts pre-conceptions, whether a 19th century museum-goer or a 21st century moron who equates being Asian with an international pandemic.

        Suh loads his play with insights, examples, indignities, amusements, and plain sense. It is impressive, and illuminating to savor how much he neatly fits into a relatively short play (an estimated 90 minutes).

        To contrast what I think works entirely with the few sequences I think go too far, I’m going to use Afong Moy’s explanation of her bound feet and her tea ceremony.

         Bound feet are a bona fide curiosity in a culture that doesn’t practice that custom. Interest comes from a cultural point of view, not judgment or criticism.

         Afong Moy is clear is telling how bound feet are a sign of gentility and class in China. She meticulously relates the process by which her toes were broken and her feet wrapped to insure her feet would be small and delicate. She also informs us the bound feet need care and that one of Atung’s jobs as her attendant is to rub her feet and rewrap them.

         This enlightens a probably unknowing audience about a tradition. Binding feet is no more an issue to Afong Moy than eating with chopsticks, also a novelty when Afong nibbles carrots and rice with them in 1834. It should be comme il faut to the audience following Afong Moy’s explanation.

        Of course, they remain a curiosity.

         Suh includes a passage in which Afong Moy repeats the famous story about how a Chinese emperor was walking through his garden with a steaming cup of water when what would turn out to be a tea leaf fell in and flavored to water to the emperor’s delight.

          Tea enters China’s culture that instant. It remains a Chinese, or Asian, delicacy until Westerners come, share pleasure in the taste of the tea, and bring it back to their countries where it becomes such a success, the Westerners, primarily the British, come back to pack it for import.

         Suh mentioning how the British commandeered part of China and all of India to provide tea is an apt story. The East India Tea Company, which dominated India but operated in China, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and other Asian countries, became an extra-governmental entity with sanction from the British crown to create and enforce often Feudal laws in the regions where it had tea plantations.

         History is history and cannot be denied. This particular bit of history, which is typical of a time and a Western attitude toward the East, invites legitimate resentment and commentary. The tea trade led to the trade in objets d’arts and hence to Afong Moy’s presence in America. It also illustrates an ongoing perception of West towards East. It belongs in “The Chinese Lady,” and is incorporated well.

          Until Suh cannot restrain himself and has his character utter the 21st century buzzword, “appropriation” in relation to Western zeal for tea. (Cue fine-frenzied rolling of the eyes.)

         Yes, in a literal sense, British appetite for tea is a copy of the Asian proclivity for the drink. Asia is where tea is found. Its Latin name is camellia sinensis, a camellia of a Chinese variety. Those 19th, actually 17th century Brits knew a good thing when they found it, especially when calming and medicinal aspects of the drink were realized.

        They began the import. “Appropriation” is a smarmily smug way of putting it. What? No one should drink tea without bowing towards Asia of acknowledging the land of its popular origin? Come on. That’s why the politically insistent are so dreary. Kill the “appropriation” comment, Lloyd.

       (Tea, by the way, markedly extended British life-expectancy. The boiling of water tea preparation requires rid Britain and other places of several waterborne diseases that plagued British society and were practically eradicated once tea became a household staple.)

        One other heavy-handed sequence in “The Chinese Lady” involves Afong Moy’s (and Atung’s) meeting in Washington D.C. with President Andrew Jackson.

         Jackson, like most Presidents, has his pluses and minuses, but his ongoing influence and stances on some subjects as viewed from the 21st century, mark him as even more controversial than he was in his time (when no one was more controversial, Jackson dominating the gap between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln).

        Controversy and current regard is no reason for Suh to break form and present Jackson in broad caricature that doesn’t fit with the subtler, cleverer use of satire and even lampoon within “The Chinese Lady.”

         Rather than a fatuous Southern gentleman mouthing clichés and unintentionally but palpably showing a lack of sophistication (of which Jackson in diplomatic situations was not guilty except by strategic design), Jackson, portrayed by Atung (Dan Kim) is presented by Suh or Jain, or both, as a parody of a Kentucky colonel, loud-mouthed, crude, and patronizing.

         The last, “patronizing,” would be apt in probable context, but Jain has Kim aim for overkill. It’s a juvenile sequence that belies the refined sharpness of the rest of the production.

          The joke in the Jackson sequence comes with Kim’s brilliant display of duplicity as he translates Jackson as he thinks would be most acceptable to Afong Moy and does the same in reverse to Jackson. This changing of words and meaning to suit what an audience wants to hear or observer wants to see is in keeping with the crux and substance of “The Chinese Lady.” It exemplifies the deft complexity Suh usually achieves. Neither the play nor the production need a “cowboy” moment. It was wrong and off-putting.

         In both the tea and Jackson sequences, Suh marred his composition by incorporating current 21st century sensibilities in a play that does best, and with ample sparkle, when he goes for the timeless and universal.

         “The Chinese Lady” doesn’t need to pander as Afong Moy is trained to do when she first comes to Peale’s Museum. Suh endows it with the goods it needs to succeed. Jain is an intuitive and entertaining interpreter of what Suh gives “The Chinese Lady.” Bi Jean Ngo spins all into gold. Dan Kim is a deadpan delight as Atung. None of these artists, particularly Suh, needs to amplify what is working at perfect tone and pitch. I lost a little respect for “The Chinese Lady” with the appropriation goop and the outsized Andrew Jackson (who, by the way, was President in 1837, the year Afong Moy is said to meet him but only for two months prior to the March 4 inauguration of Martin Van Buren).

        Keep the tea section confined to comment about the East India Company and soften the Jackson sequence, which will make it not only funnier but more intense and more poignant.

         The lasting idea is Afong Moy, being a woman and Asian, remains an object. Familiarity has not necessarily led to smooth, seamless diversity. Multi-generation Asians, whose families have been in America far longer than mine, still have to deal with the idea they are exotic or somehow less American. (Channel 6’s Nydia Han has a sharp, on point answer to that.)

        That is the crux of Suh’s play. The exotic remains exotic long past common sense or common experience. Artifice prevails. Misunderstanding and misconception linger. Identity continues to take precedence over individuality. Traits are yet assigned out of lazy habit and myth rather than from observation and reality.’

         Through its offhand wit, well-placed satire, and fitting sarcasm, “The Chinese Lady” expresses the tragicomedy and hard-to-cope-with benightedness of people’s attitudes towards other people, especially when race, ethnicity, or other identity traits are concerned, especially when those traits are visible and categorized.

         Suh’s play also deals well with what Afong Moy has to learn, including how to survive in a country she was only supposed to work in for one year, and the difference between who one must pretend to be to fulfill one’s job and who one is within oneself.

         Neither “The Chinese Lady” nor Jain’s production are perfect, but they are smart, thought-provoking, and more often on the mark that wandering astray.

        Bi Jean Ngo is extraordinary as Afong Moy. She accomplished the Herculean task of winning affection while keeping enough distance to allow Suh’s satire and commentary to have full life.

        The only time you see Afong Moy as a woman not playing a role or struggling to think of how she’ll get along once the importers evict her from Peale’s, is in moments when Ngo adroitly provides those glimpses. The scared teenager is visible through the rehearsed human museum artifact. Sincere emotions are expressed that give texture to those Afong Moy must feign.

         Ngo has numerous tasks. She has to create Afong Moy the mannequin and Afong Moy as person who ages from 14 to her 80s. She has to show us how a girl who has never left her village in China reacts to visiting every major city of the United States. She has to let you know what is pure artifice as compared with something true and real, and she manages it every time.

        Best of all, it is apparent Ngo is making use of her personal experience as an Asian-American navigating a society is which she is viewed as stereotypically Asian. It informs her performance in ways that are simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking.

        Dan Kim leavens “The Chinese Lady” with his take-life-as-it-comes portrayal of Atung, who I say is “irrelevant” based on dialogue from early in Suh’s play. Kim can go from willing servant who knows his place and fulfills its ungrudgingly to a droll but dignified sad sack who sees the irony in all around him and goes with bemused resignation with the flow.

        This is a subtle, funny (as in “Good Soldier Schweik” funny) performance of a man who revels quietly in survival while knowing his life is as irrelevant as Afong Moy says it is.

         Music from the opening chords on a cello to an array of sounds from multiple instruments, some derivatively Asian, others derisionally commentating, some beautiful, some suitably discordant, is a third character in “The Chinese Lady.” Mel Hsu, as sound designer, composer, and performer of the InterAct score earns constant and abundant admiration for their taste, their sensitivity, and their ability to so precisely capture every mood, concept, and nuance of Suh’s work and Jain’s production.

         Chris Haig’s set succinctly illustrates the artifice Afong Moy brings to our attention while realistically showing what a museum would pass off as Chinese culture. Haig is astute about time and about designing each subsequent backdrop to match Afong Moy’s situation at the time.

        Ariel Liudi Wang also finds the right mix between the clichéd colorful and patterned silks Afong Moy dons for the gullible at Peale’s and what she wears in life. She is also adept at dressing Ngo when she is commenting.

         Maria Shaplin’s lighting defines time and enhances mood. Jo Vito Ramirez is astute at choosing the Pier 1 imports one might expect at an importer’s exhibition.

          “The Chinese Lady” runs through Sunday, November 21, at InterAct Theatre, at the Proscenium of the Drake Theatre Complex, 311 S. Hicks Street (50 yards west of S. 15th Street), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $35 with discounts available to students and people in the theater industry. They can be obtained by visiting www.interacttheatre.org or by calling 215-568-8079. Please remember to bring proof of full vaccination for COVID and a mask to wear while in the theater.

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