‘The Chinese Lady,’ a compelling TimeLine play, imagines inner life of a teen showing her culture to U.S. audiences

Mi Kang charms as the girl brought from Guangzhou in 1834 and put on display in New York.

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A teenager dubbed Afong Moy (Mi Kang) puts on demonstrations of her homeland’s customs for New York audiences in “The Chinese Lady.”

Lara Goetsch

The woman known as Afong Moy, the title character of playwright Lloyd Suh’s thoroughly compelling “The Chinese Lady,” was the first Chinese woman to set foot in North America. Or at least, that’s how she was advertised.

Afong Moy was the name assigned to a teenager brought from Guangzhou to New York City in 1834 by American traders, who put her on display for paying customers who wanted a glimpse of something exotic — a living artifact of 19th-century Orientalism, nestled at the center of a room filled with other commodities from her homeland.

For each audience of visitors, she would demonstrate a tea ceremony, eating with chopsticks, and walking around the room on her traditionally bound feet. A Chinese man known as Atung served as her attendant and translator. We’re told that Afong Moy’s performance initially fetched an admission price of 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children.

‘The Chinese Lady’

The Chinese Lady

When: Through June 18

Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Tickets: $42–$57

Info: timelinetheatre.com

Run time: 1 hour 30 minutes, with no intermission

Practically nothing is known about the actual woman who was billed as “The Chinese Lady,” including her given name, her family of origin, or what became of her once the paying crowds waned. The project of Suh’s multilayered two-hander, then, is to grant her an imagined inner life.

We’re introduced to Afong Moy shortly after her arrival, at age 14, as she runs through a version of her act. As Atung (Glenn Obrero) opens a silk curtain, Afong (Mi Kang) is revealed within the red-hued walls of what she calls “the room.” (The gorgeously detailed, diorama-like set, designed by Arnel Sancianco, holds a few surprises of its own.)

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Glenn Obrero plays Atung, attendant and translater for Afong Moy.

Lara Goetsch

This young Afong is curious and optimistic, as thrilled to encounter the unfamiliar contours of America as she is to represent China to her audience. And in Suh’s carefully constructed conceit, the audience to whom she’s speaking is simultaneously the gawkers of 1834 and the theater attendees of 2022.

The Afong and Atung on stage before us are unbound by linear time. Afong can exist as a teenage girl in the 1830s while also referencing the Opium Wars of decades to come, even as she cheerfully adds that she won’t actually learn about any of this, shielded as she is from the events of the broader world.

Afong shrugs off the artificiality of this theatrical logic as no stranger than the distorted portrait of Chinese life she’s bound to enact several times a day: “My entire life is a performance.”

And it allows young Afong to comment on cross-cultural affairs with a cutting hopefulness. She daydreams about returning home to China with a 14-year-old white American girl in tow, to be put on display just as she has been here. And she’s bemused by the grotesque obsession with her feet, when America has its own brutal customs. “Such as corsets,” she says by example. “Or the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Unhindered by language barriers, she’s clever, wry, and poetic in her conversation with us; was it the limits of translation or of empathy that flattened white Americans’ perceptions of her into little more than decorative garb and tea sets?

Years pass in larger and larger chunks as each new scene begins, and Afong’s enthusiasm falls away with each reopening of the curtain. As America’s Chinese population becomes grist for the mill of westward expansion in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and later targeted for racialized terrorism and lynchings, Afong becomes apologetic. If only she’d been a better ambassador, she thinks, things could have been different.

Suh’s script traces a tricky trajectory, but director Helen Young steers this TimeLine Theatre Company production handily around the tonal curves. The play asks a lot of its two actors. Obrero finds impressive nuance in Atung’s shifting feelings for Afong, but the production rests on Kang’s massively charming performance.

A transplant from Seattle, where she logged credits with many of that city’s top theaters, Kang is completing an MFA in acting at Northwestern this spring; “The Chinese Lady” marks her professional Chicago debut, and it’s a stunner.

When Suh’s artifice-breaking ending requires Kang to speak in her own voice, we’re more than ready to respect her authority. The message? There’s a difference between looking and seeing.

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