'The Chinese Lady' at Barrington Stage is a screed masquerading as a play
PITTSFIELD — In 1834, Afong Moy came to the United States from China at the age of 14; the youngest of seven, sold by her father for two years of service to New York-based Far East importers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne who put her on display at Peale's Museum, where she could be viewed by the public twice a day, Tuesdays through Sundays.
She was a first; the first Chinese woman to be brought to America, even though male Chinese immigrants would swell the ranks of the American labor force, especially during construction of the First Trancontinental Railroad.
Moy would spend the next 45 years of her life in America as an exhibit, a traveling side show presented first by the Carnes at the Peale Museum; then, eventually, by showman P.T. Barnum, to whom Moy was sold by the Carnes.
Her little-known story is the subject of playwright Lloyd Suh's "The Chinese Lady," a screed masquerading as a play that is having its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in a co-production with New York-based Ma-Yi Theater Company.
Junghyun Georgia Lee's clever set is dominated, as the audience enters BSC's intimate space, by a massive shipping container belonging to a Chinese freight company. It opens in a dramatic sequence initiated and executed by a shadowy, backlit, mist-enshrouded figure who soon springs to action in the dark, opening the container, setting some pieces in place and then stepping aside as the lights come up to reveal the smiling, ingenuous Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who then launches into her monologue. She is in her exhibit space, The Room, and she will explain, among so many other things, her thoughts, her impressions, her expectations; the use of chopsticks as she eats "Chinese" food; the significance of the tea ceremony; and detail the bone-crushing procedure of binding feet.
This is material she will repeat at each show at each location. As the years pass, her limited familiarity with America expands, her confidence grows, as does her English. Her words are the words she would speak to us directly, if she could, as she maneuvers through layers of her interpreter's narrative and struggles to make viewers understand that she is not some stereotype; some image viewed through a prism of cultural illiteracy. Exhibit visitors look at her without seeing her.
For Afong May, it's not only a matter of being seen but also of being heard. Audiences who see her on exhibit hear her speaking Chinese; her words interpreted in English by Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who, like Afong, hides in plain sight. The words we hear from her are what she would say if she were able to speak English. As time passes that voice grows more confident, fluent; inflected with the pain of disappointment and experience; anger; a sense of urgency and of hope
We learn virtually nothing of Afong Moy's private life. The lessons she learns are tough as she tries to assimilate into a culture whose government and society unleash a series of atrocities against immigrant Chinese, which she chronicles in a litany near the end of the play as "The Chinese Lady" charges toward its if-you-haven't-gotten-it-by-now-here's-the-message conclusion that seeks hope in a culture that is unforgiving and cruel.
The performances are acceptable; the style a subtle mix of Chinese theater and movement and Western style but the production grows tedious and loses novelty as it moves along its intermissionless 80 or so minutes.
Director Ralph B. Pena's production draws rich dramatic texture and color from Oliver Wason's lighting concept and especially Fabian Obispo's delicate, haunting incidental music and an evocative, aurally descriptive sound design that ends, as the audience is leaving the theater, with an instrumental version, complete with tapping, of William Jerome and Jean Schwartz' popular 1906 tune, "Chinatown My Chinatown" — wry, sublime inspiration.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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