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The Chinese Lady Review

A Woman of Substance

Address: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Bldg. D
San Francisco, CA 94123
Phone: 415-441-8822

The Chinese Lady

Magic Theatre — Outside Looking In

What we see on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s within, and it’s a point The Chinese Lady drives home in a most effective way. The play, which is written by Lloyd Suh and directed by Mina Morita, opens with a circus tent with a Chinese man outside, waiting. At the appointed time, he lifts the sides to reveal a young woman inside in a dramatic start to a story that is both enlightening and sad, but always infused with the hope and optimism of the protagonist.

Afong Moy is the girl, and she was a real-life character who was the first Chinese female to come to the United States, arriving in 1834. She was from an upper-class family in Guangzhou and just 14 when she arrived in New York, after her father made a business arrangement with American merchants Nathaniel and Frederick Carne for her to take part in a promotional campaign for products from the Orient. Initially, she was to return to China after two years, but she remained for decades, and whether she ever returned to China is unknown.

Rinabeth Apostol (right) plays Afong Moy, and when the story begins, she is essentially a woman on display, much like an exhibit in a museum. Her appearance is different from that of an American woman, and she’s aware that she’s a curiosity, but at heart, she’s also a teacher who initially believes she can inform spectators about Chinese culture. The script contains fascinating details, such as the origin of tea, and Apostol’s acting is masterful, as she takes Afong Moy from being a somewhat naïve youngster excited about the possibilities the United States offers to an over-confident teenager and through the evolving stages of her life until she ages out of her job and becomes expendable. Throughout, she observes and learns about the culture she’s immersed in and has valuable lessons to share, although spectators most often view her simply as someone who’s unusual to them and thus a curiosity. They lack the interest to learn, and in the moment, it’s their loss, because by failing to see Afong Moy as a whole person, they miss out on her intellect and wisdom. The lessons and hope for the future, however, endure.

Will Dao plays Atung (right), Afong Moy’s keeper, and he’s adept at playing the role of the stereotypical Chinese servant that his employers expect. He’s kind and patient with his charge, and she considers him a friend, but, ultimately, even she is unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s necessary, as he makes a decision she doesn’t understand, leaving her adrift.

The Chinese Lady is a well-conceived production, with close attention to detail, from the circus tent to the tea service, as well as costumes that reflect the role the characters are expected to play in the circumstances they find themselves. How one perceives others isn’t always fair or accurate, especially when stereotypes and prejudices get in the way. It is, perhaps, part of the human condition and clearly difficult to change, and that makes The Chinese Lady timely. It captures a piece of lost history, but also shows how we treat people, when we overlook the complexity of an individual and take a superficial view. The Magic Theatre offers a beautiful, thought-provoking production that lingers long after the curtain goes down.

The Chinese Lady is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. The play runs from October 9 to November 3 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. For tickets or more information, go to www.magictheatre.org or call 415-441-8822.