In Viola Spolin’s seminal work Improvisation for the Theater, the very first exercise listed is named “exposure.” During this exercise, a group of actors are divided into halves and instructed to simply look at others and allow others to look at them. This deceptively difficult task often challenges new performers greatly; not only do they experience “stage fright” from being looked at, they also realize how highly uncomfortable it can be to unashamedly stare at someone looking back at you—even when given explicit permission to do so. TimeLine Theatre’s production of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, now onstage at Theater Wit, interrogates our cultural preference to exoticize and gaze at the “other” from a safe distance without actually seeing, and what that says about our maturity as a society.
The Chinese Lady
Through 6/18: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 6/14, 2 PM; distanced performance Tue 6/14; open captions Fri 6/10 and Sat 6/11, 4 PM; audio description Fri 6/17; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $42-$57 (student discount 35 percent; military, first responders, veterans, and their families $25).
In 1834, a 14-year-old girl named Afong Moy was the very first lady brought from China to America, who was then put on display in a museum for gawking crowds for a price of 25 cents for adults, and ten cents for children. The practice of consuming other cultures for entertainment is a peculiar American institution, spanning from Sarah (or Saartjie) Baartman, to circus freak shows, to the modern day where stage plays, movies, and books serve as “education” to predominantly white audiences while often simultaneously exploiting disenfranchised communities.
Afong Moy is wonderfully portrayed by Mi Kang, an incredibly versatile actor who takes the character from the innocence of youth, as Moy experiences the joy of adventure of a new country after being sold into slavery by her parents for a “temporary” two-year stint in a museum, to the heartbreaking reality of old age, as the ugly truth of her predicament becomes undeniable.
Though she may be alone in America, fortunately Moy isn’t the only Chinese person in the museum. Her translator Afong is thoughtfully portrayed by Glenn Obrero, who seamlessly moves between providing every role to Moy—a circumspect caretaker, a teasing brother, a paternal father, and begrudgingly, a friend. As Moy and Afong go through the motions of their stage show day after day, their emotions churn, the nonthreatening veneer of performance cracking to reveal their white-hot anger at their circumstances—impotent rage with no target that can be hit.
Moy and Afong are utterly alone, not only isolated from their country, but isolated socially, unable to earn money to strike out on their own, unable to start families of their own, and unable to communicate with each other and the world around them in a manner that expresses the complexity and richness of their inner lives. One particularly heartbreaking and anger-inducing scene, where a moment of would-be triumph for Moy is ruined by the boorishness and racism of a powerful white man, leaving Moy vulnerable in her inability to verbalize and advocate for herself, sickeningly draws a direct line to the kind of sexual objectification that Asian women experience today. Director Helen Young expertly stages this difficult scene in a thoughtful way that mercifully isn’t exploitative.
The Chinese Lady is a testament to important swaths of history that have previously been swept under the rug—including the Opium Wars, and the debt we owe to Chinese Americans for building the railroads with their sweat and blood. Playwright Suh brilliantly anticipates that we will indeed be educated about the “other” and additionally challenges us, “So what?” What good is our education, what good is learning about other cultures, what good is passively observing from a safe distance if we do not see? Have we truly been educated if nothing changes? In bearing witness to the legacy of The Chinese Lady, we are challenged to bear witness to our own actions—or lack thereof.