“The Chinese Lady,” now at the Manoa Valley Theatre, is a revealing and riveting drama about a 14-year-old Chinese native girl exhibited to New Yorkers in 1834…as if she were a sideshow oddity.
For the next five decades, this girl becoming a woman is exhibited as a curiosity from the Orient whose manners and lifestyle can be observed by Americans, who paid admission to gawk and inspect.
From one viewpoint, you may think this is racism of the worse kind: exhibiting a foreigner simply because she is different. On the other hand, this is somewhat of a history lesson – in a staged theatrical setting –that requires the viewers to focus and concentrate and learn from Afong Moy (alternately portrayed by Jennifer Yee Stierli and Diana Wan) about the idiosyncrasies of humankind.
Diana Wan is Afong May, Alvin Chan is Atung, in MVT’s “The Chinese Lady.”
Which of the actress enacting the part was not identified nor announced at a performance I attended, but she was steadfast and compelling as a non-American telling an immigrant’s story of acceptance despite widely different roots.
The play, by Lloyd Suh, is based on real-life experiences, and is directed by Reiko Ho, with requisite respect and affection, polishing an imaginative mirror that reflects generational strife and challenges of being different in America. The play was to close July 30, but has been extended for three additional performances, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 and 5, and at 3 p.m. Aug. 6.
Chinese playgoers might be particularly interested to see and hear the experiences of a person from the past and the challenges of being Asian in an American realm. Could their ancestors be part of this element?
The character supposedly is a goodwill ambassador from Guangdong Province, sold by her father to promoters for promotional purposes to build potential trade with China. But the positioning of her uniqueness, in this case an apt pagoda-style single set adorned with the feel and accoutrements of a Chinese home (shelving, tea pot and cup), makes her somewhat of circus act to gaze at, like a sideshow bearded lady, rather than a human as part of the puzzle that is mankind.
It’s not the kind of Ellis or Angel Island welcome, where immigrants can plant American roots for a possible future in the land of hope and opportunity.
That said, Afong Moy is delighted in staging her recurring and episodic duties, drinking tea, having dinner, talking about and showing her bound feet (a Chinese tradition among women), and dancing around her seat for exercise. She intermittently chats with Atung (Alvin Chan), a collaborator who is translator and kind shoulder to lean on, who attends to her needs and opens and closes a curtain on the set.
“My entire life is a performance,” Afong says at one point. That’s because she doesn’t know another life outside the globe of scrutiny.
There’s delicate chemistry between the two roles, two souls caught in the web of loneliness, together but yet far apart. There are a few comedic moments, necessary in the otherwise static journey though time.
For MVT, the show is a modest milestone, with an all-Chinese acting and directing team.
The artisans do good work here; sets by Michelle A. Bisbee, lighting by Janine Myers, sound design by Mattea Mazzella, costumes by Maile Speetjens, hair and makeup by Ho and Speetjens, props by La Tanya Fasmausili-Siliato, and scenic artistry by Willie Sabel are superb, visually stunning and properly easy on the ears.
And that’s Show Biz. …
‘The Chinese Lady’
A drama by Lloyd Suh, directed by Reiko Ho
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, held over Aug. 3 to 8.
Tickets: $25 to $42 at www.manoavalleytheatre.com or (808) 988-6131