Audience members have grown accustomed to the clever ways that theaters request that all instruments be silenced, candies unwrapped and otherwise zipped up in the show’s prologue. But Denver Center Theater Company and “The Chinese Lady” director Seema Suiko takes her pre-curtain appeal a step further.
Stars Narea Kang and Sky Smith took the stage before Lloyd Suh’s clever, sharply entertaining and rending play about Afong Moy, America’s first famous Chinese immigrant. They introduce themselves and then make the usual request a playful, even silly, bit.
At ease, both possess personality. That they can be seen almost as themselves in this pre-performance routine is a feeling worth carrying to the end of the play.
After all, Kong’s Afong Moi is the centerpiece of a vividly fictional work about the career of an Asian young man exhibited in 1834, first by two merchants who accompanied his father in Guangzhou province for two years. Bargained for a loan, and then (in a looser version of the play’s history) many years later by showman and huckster PT Barnum. And what is theater, especially the kind that addresses the audience in the first person, if not a commentary on its own relationship to (and constraint on) “display”?
Afong Moye was part of the stage name given to the young man by brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carney. Another moniker was the exploitative, come-hither Chinese woman. The erasure of her personal history and exhibition bears an ugly parallel to that of Sartje Baartman, also known as The Venus Hottentot, a South African woman exhibited in France in the early 1800s. Moye talks about her life in her 60s. (Baartman died at age 20.)
Moy is clear from the start that the story she tells is another work of imagination. But Suh’s saying is a generous one, a rehabilitator. First, Moy can’t speak English. Second, she was not allowed to speak even when she could.
In a deft piece of dialogue, Moy addresses the rapid-fire questions about her presence—her body—that are posed to those who gravitate toward her. “Do you think she … I wonder if she … and my goodness look at her feet.” Moye’s feet and the tradition of binding them are a source of surprise, dismay, and even more disturbing emotion when she meets President Andrew Jackson. But everything about Moy (apart from his genuine humanity) is met with curiosity.
Smith portrays Atong, Moy’s old attendant and chosen translator. He also has a story, though we only get bits and pieces of it. (Something about Pittsburgh, one of the many stops on the tour, makes him shudder.) His young ward dismisses him as “irrelevant,” too baroquely designed “rooms. “I have another prop. He also possesses an almost incomprehensible yet meaningful smile.
Their artificially contrived relationship develops over the years into something more engaged and meaningful. Its repeated, yet time-stamped, introduction with another year of display indicates how its display has extended beyond the two years for which it was originally leased. . Along the way, she makes rueful and stinging observations. What if a 14-year-old white girl was sent to China for the same purposes of “education and entertainment”.
As Moy ages, Kong’s performance becomes deeper and more intense. She’s gone from the chatty, overzealous teenager who makes matinee audiences laugh when she eats chopsticks or the same food she should in a “room” designed to fake her authenticity. A similar turn to the pain and quiet anger of their situation is revealed when Atang has a dream about his home, loss, and Afong Moye.
A bravura scene comes late in the play when Afong Moye is no longer a Chinese woman. She is old. But that doesn’t stop her from following her milestones to the audience—and ours—as she crosses the stage in a timeline simulation. For the Denver Center production, Suh aptly included acts of anti-Asian violence in Moy’s account of the city’s 1880s anti-Chinese riots, which destroyed blocks of Chinatown businesses and left dozens beaten and 28-year-old laundry worker Luck Young was lynched.
His ongoing oral history is made difficult for him—with his feet bound—and severe punishment for both the audience and the guilty nation that made him a spectacle.
If you went
“The Chinese Lady.” Written by Lloyd Sue. Directed by Seema Sweko. With Naria Kong and Skye Smith. Through Oct. 15 at the Singleton Theater in the Helen Bonfils Theater Complex.For tickets and information, visit denvercenter.org or call 303-893-4100.
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