This is a reprint of my remarks about “The Chinese Lady” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented in their Stiemke Studio during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on March 6, 2019!
Spoiler alert! I am putting that out front here just in case. I may not actually spoil anything but I don’t know how to tell my story about my experience with The Chinese Lady and have to worry about whether I am giving too much away!
Over the years I have always found the plays at The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Theater to be their most challenging and thought provoking each and every season. So I have made it a point to make sure I see all of them even when I can’t make the rest of the Rep’s season.
So it was with great expectations that I attended their presentation of The Chinese Lady and I am delighted with it. It’s based on a true story of the first female Chinese immigrant to the United States. Afong Moy was brought here as a Chinese curiosity to demonstrate and display other Chinese curiosities, namely Chinese household items that the American public could purchase from her ‘employer’. And I have employer in parentheses because she was brought here under a ‘contract’ with her father with the intention she would return home. But instead she remained in America as a side show attraction for decades and it isn’t known if she ever returned to China.
The Chinese Lady only features two roles. Lisa Helmi Johanson as Afong Moy and Jon Norman Schneider as Atung. Atung is also in the employ of the American importers and acts as Ms. Moy’s interpreter and protector.
The Rep did away with the traditional stage in the black box theater and presents Ms. Moy in a giant version of a literal black lacquer Chinese box that Atung opens to expose the wonderful exotic items within. The box that will be her stage throughout and essentially her prison in life. A place where Americans pay to see the exotic woman and her exotic environs and her exotic traditions.
And the structure of the play works a bit differently too. Usually if a play features an aside, where a character speaks directly to the audience, it is usually to reveal a secret, fill in a fact, or progress the story further down the timeline. But in The Chinese Lady…most all of the play is an aside. Ms. May and Atung address the audience directly throughout most of the play. When they do speak to each other, those interludes act as the asides and expose those secrets or surprises or fill in context that they can’t provide directly to us…because they aren’t always known to each other until they are spoken.
One of the points where words have multiple meanings as we live through the play…early on Ms. Moy breaks the artifice of the stage by stating her dress wasn’t hers…her body wasn’t hers…which is true for the character…the physicality belongs to the actress although we are supposed to suspend disbelief and accept the character as real. But even the character experiences this dress isn’t hers…this body isn’t hers…it belongs to the importers who brought her from China. And it becomes even less her own possession as she ages and loses her native language skills, her memories of China, and the life she should have been able to forge for herself. It runs from hopeful to sad to tragic in the end.
And as she repeats rituals throughout, we watch Ms. Moy mature and turn from the hopeful 14 year old youth into a mature world wise woman. Ms. Johanson does an incredible job of portraying that growth and awareness beyond just the scenic and costume changes. And Mr. Schneider identifies his concurrent aging process without the benefit of a costume change. They both excel in their roles.
The playwright, Lloyd Suh has crafted a marvelous play where words carry meaning beyond their apparent message…particularly as other meanings come to light later in the play. And it is a play that speaks to today…but demonstrates that we didn’t get here in a vacuum and lays out that path that got us to 2019. It isn’t as pretty as we pretend it to be and the characters let us know that. My one quibble here…after fashioning a view of the world and an amazing play that tricks us down its own path…he sums up the ending too quickly, too forcefully, and of course too uncomfortably. But this is the one play this season that I intend to see again before it ends it run.
So…The Chinese Lady will be at the Stiemke through March 24…so there’s time to see it…but not that much time…so hurry! And there are NO bad seats in the Stiemke!!!