Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"The Chinese Lady" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Lloyd Suh's "The Chinese Lady" is beautifully written, staged and acted. The brilliant fabric canopy (by Liz Matos) in which the real Afong Moy was made to display herself as a carnival attraction in the America of the 1830s and '40s, is as beautifully constructed as was the story created by the American importers of Chinese artifacts who purchased the 14-year-old from her father to enhance their business dealings. Suh's story is an interpretation of actual historical events.

We loved Rinabeth Apostol as the young, tragic girl who believes she is doing something to enhance Chinese-American relations, and Will Dao, her perhaps even more tragic interpreter. Both know how to act out their employers' desires, but as the years pass neither can avoid seeing the truth: they are prisoners, unpaid and exploited. Their culture is disrespected as they are treated like curiosities in a circus, especially after P.T. Barnum buys them from their previous employers.

The picture this paints of America is troublesome. But it would not feel as sad if our attitudes were not in so many ways unchanged after all these years. The idea of extolling the values of a new culture always loses out to fear of the unknown. 

A highlight of this one-act show is Dao's portrayal of President Andrew Jackson. He has given a meeting to Afong Moy, but proves to be as distasteful as all the others. Atung plays the vainglorious President as well as himself as translator for both Jackson and Afong Moy. He speaks excellent, educated English, but must always translate in simple pidgin. This is a set piece that deserves accolades. 

Props to the Props. Jacquelyn Scott has peppered the stage with perfectly inauthentic Chinese artifacts meant to make Jacksonian audiences Oooh and Ahhh. 

The ending is long, because they seem to be laboring to make a point about racism that we all understood from the beginning. There are no other niggles. This is a terrific show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Chinese Lady" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Acting, directing and staging earn one star each and the BANGLE is for Andrew Jackson. But don't forget how sensitive and vulnerable is Apostol. Congratulations on perfect casting. 

"The Chinese Lady"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through November 3

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