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“The Chinese Lady” blends fact and fiction to create a greater truth

Whit K. Lee and Sami Ma in a scene from "The Chinese Lady"
Jim McLaughlin
Courtesy of Adirondack Theatre Festival
Whit K. Lee and Sami Ma in a scene from "The Chinese Lady"

“The Chinese Lady” is a fascinating 90-minutes of theater being offered at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls through Sunday.

It is a work that clearly demonstrates the storytelling power of the medium as it takes facts and uses them to tell a mesmerizing story.

While the facts are truthful, the story based on those facts is mostly unsubstantiated. Yet almost magically, greater truths are revealed.

An example in the show is the story of the Liberty Bell. Every child knows it cracked. Many believe it cracked when first used to declare liberty for the country. The truth is there is a Liberty Bell and it is cracked. There is no proof when it cracked or why.

What a terrible story it would be if the crack was simply a result of shoddy craftsmanship. Whatever, the myth of the tale of the Liberty Bell is an important legend in American history. Truth is – no one cares about the truth of a good story.

The same dynamics are in play with the person known as “The Chinese Lady.” She was an actual person, Afong Moy. She is reported to be the first Chinese Woman to be brought to America. It was 1834 and she was 14 years old.

She was sold by her parents to a company who put her on display to promote their products imported from China. People would pay to see her make tea, use chopsticks and walk on her bound feet. She would engage with her audience through an interpreter. She became a famous figure touring the country and even met with President Jackson.

Her original contract was for two years; she stayed for more than 40. Little else is known about her, except for the few details of her life.

However, her length of stay in a formative United States is the heart of the play. We see her life through the eyes of playwright Lloyd Suh. At the same time he helps us see America through the clarity of an outsider. And with that clarity we better understand our own history.

When the truth and imagination combine it is insightful and shameful. Moy went from being a prestigious novelty to a sideshow exhibit at the Barnum and Bailey Circus. As she grew older, she was discarded for a younger version of herself.

During her life she lived through the political movement called Manifest Destiny which meant uniting the country from coast to coast. It was symbolized by the creation of the intercontinental railroad – which was built by thousands of exploited, imported Chinese laborers.

Moy also experienced the Opium Wars and the race riots and bigotry towards her race. It culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by which immigration by Chinese laborers was banned. Though altered in 1922, it remained in effect through the 1940s.

In her lifetime, she also saw the near-extermination of the American-Indian, the original inhabitants of the land.

While the play dwells on many historic acts that certain areas of the country would like to have disappear, the marvelously understated performance by actor Sami Ma prevents the work from becoming a political diatribe.

Moy always remains seated, giving her a regal presence. However, she clearly and calmly states the events as they existed..

Wisely, she does not take a judgmental tone. Her role is that of a witness who is an outsider trying to understand the values of a new country. She is brilliant throughout, especially in the final scene which makes us realize how much of history is only theater.

This is not a one person show. Also on stage is her would-be translator Atung.

Played by Whit K. Lee, he performs simple tasks in a remarkable way. The character is constantly told he is irrelevant, yet his subservient stance is filled with dignity. He and Moy never seem friends but they travel the same journey. It’s a cruel reminder of Capitalism’s exploitive nature that when Moy is released by Barnum and Bailey she’s let go because she is paid. Atung is kept because he works for free.

Brilliantly written by Suh and expertly directed by Shannon Tyo, “The Chinese Lady” is a fascinating look of outsiders who view what we see as normal. It appears to be simply a play about our country’s historical attitude towards immigration.

But COVID has added another level. This is also a play about isolation and viewing a world with which you were comfortable, change before your eyes.

And, if you look deep enough, the play is enlightening in understanding the geo-political tensions of today’s world.

“The Chinese Lady” is a remarkable 90-minutes of theater that covers centuries of facts that have become myth and therefore taken on the mystique of truth. It should be seen.

It continues through Sunday at the Charles Wood Theatre in Glens Falls. For tickets and schedule go to atfestival.org or call 518-480-4878.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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