Review: Timeline Theatre Presents the Soul of a Nation on Display in The Chinese Lady

The fetishization of the “other” has been around since the forming of class systems in Eurocentric cultures. If a person was not possessed of white skin, then they must be some sort of savage to be caged and studied to see if they can be civilized or at least monetized. The Chinese Lady by playwright Lloyd Suh and directed by Helen Young, tells the true story of Afong Moy—the first Chinese woman to set foot on the shores of America. Moy was essentially purchased from her father and brought over by brothers Nathaniel and Francis Carne, importers of “Oriental” goods. The year was 1834 and Americans knew as much about the culture of Asia as they did Africa. It was another culture and people to be exploited for monetary gain and fetishization.

The Chinese Lady actually begins before the brocade curtains are parted with a ceremonial flourish. Afong Moy (Mi Kang) sits on the stage and smiles as the audience walks in. Moy is dressed in jeans and a tee shirt like any casually dressed person. It is a foreshadowing of the power of observation and how being observed is disempowering. Afong is accompanied by a man named Atung (Glenn Obrero) who serves as her translator and the one who dramatically pulls the curtains back to display the room full of goods from China with Afong as the centerpiece. Kang plays Afong as a sweet and endearing teenager who believes that she has been brought to America to share her culture and to learn about America.

Mi Fang as Afong Moy. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

Afong Moy says that Atung is “irrelevant” since she is the center of attention in a bit of comic exchange before Afong goes through the display of eating with chopsticks, explaining the importance of tea, and walking on her tiny bound feet. It is played for comic effects but Obrero’s subtle expressions are a poignant framing of what is really happening. Atung is there to keep the fantasy going and to translate in pidgin English what the customers come to see and hear for a few coins. Obrero does a comic turn as a stand in for Andrew Jackson who has a special audience with Afong Moy. Jackson was a virulent racist responsible for the genocide of Native Americans and he is written as a buffoon, looking Afong over like an oddity.

The Chinese Lady takes place over five decades. Afong Moy was eventually purchased by PT Barnum to be a part of his traveling show of freaks and oddities when she was in her 30s. Kang’s portrayal becomes more intense and tinged with bitterness as Afong Moy speaks of the gold rush and how Chinese men looking for gold were turned into laborers to build the transcontinental railroad. Kang’s performance is brilliant as the character unravels and understands what is happening to non-ornamental Chinese people. The recitation of horrors inflicted upon Chinese immigrants is gut-wrenching. There was widespread lynching and Chinese burned alive in settlements that White people sought to take over. The relationship between Afong and Atung becomes one of interdependence as he conceals her knowledge of what is really happening with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and of her purpose as a curiosity. Obrero gives a taut and nuanced performance as an embittered and aging man with no future once he is no longer needed as a translator.

Glenn Obrero as Atung. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

Helen Young’s direction is even and steady as the play subject matter becomes darker and ominous. Arnel Sancianco’s scenic design perfectly showcases a display of Afong and the trappings of tea boxes and vases considered to be exotic. Izumi Inaba’s costume designs are beautiful with beautiful colors and patterns that elicit memories of the Rand McNally Atlas set I had as a kid. It was the 1960s and cultural stereotypes were rampant in encyclopedias and other reference books.

The atlas that represented Asia was red (of course) and the people were called “Orientals.” My wise and brilliant mother taught me that it was an insult to call Asian people “Oriental” because it lumps different cultures under one banner and is an invention of Western thinking and fetishization of those cultures. The Chinese Lady is reminiscent of the horrific story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman from South Africa during the same time as Afong Moy. Baartman was a Black woman who was put on display naked in a cage and carted around Europe and then America. She had wide hips and a distended vulva giving elite White audiences a definition of Black women as hypersexual because of physical appearance. Asian women have borne the onus of being sexually acquiescent and exotic without a thought to their intellect or their view of being objectified. The Chinese Lady offers some deep lessons about being on display and an object of curiosity rather than a sentient being.

Timeline Theatre’s production of The Chinese Lady runs 90 minutes with no intermission. The show plays through June 18 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $42-$57 with discounts for students, seniors, military veterans, first responders and their families. For more information, please visit www.timelinetheatre.com. Covid protocols are followed at the theater. Please bring your vaccine card or a negative PCR covid test within 72 hours and identification. Wear a mask over your nose and mouth at all times while in the theater. Protect the actors, staff, fellow audience members, and yourself.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.