‘The Chinese Lady’ at American Stage until Sunday

Don’t miss ‘The Chinese Lady’ at American Stage, playing through Sunday. This play is a stirring piece of historical exploitation that tells the story of a young girl Asian woman treated as a sideshow act for a curious public. 

BY J.A. JONES | Staff Writer

ST PETERSBURG – With enough humor to lessen, but not obscure, its bite, “The Chinese Lady” at American Stage tells the tale of Afong Moy, a 14-year-old-girl lured from her homeland, sold into “show business” in 1834 and put on display as the first Asian woman to set foot on U.S. soil.

The purchase of Moy (from her unseen father) was, in truth, carried out by museum owners Nathaniel and Frederick Carnes, who installed her in a room where she was instructed to sit and play out her role to gawking museum attendees.

The youthful Moy is played with fittingly ironic if forced optimism by the versatile actress Che’Li, who explains that the audience is offered a “performance of a performance” as she quickly reminds viewers that much of what is presented is a creative, fictional imagining of Moy’s life since there is little historical documentation.

Initially depicted as an exotic Eastern beauty — youthful, slim, delicate, if nonverbal — we learn Moy speaks no English and is accompanied onstage by her translator, Atung. Played as a duty-bound and compassionate handler by Jacob Yeh, Atung is both a protector and a guide who steers the energetic young captive through and then beyond the two years she’s sold to the museum owners.

Lloyd Suh’s play recounts Moy’s servitude, which extends past those two years; she never returns to China but is eventually put on tour and travels through the country displaying the use of chopsticks and walking on her tiny bound feet for curious Americans.

Her life becomes even more of an outrageous exploitation of her femininity and culture when she is sold to PT Barnum at some point later in life. Mona Lim, writing for American Stage’s “Arts Guide,” notes that Moy’s last recorded public exhibition was Feb. 21, 1851; she would have been 31.

However, playwright Lloyd Suh imagines Moy’s life through the next three decades as Moy and Atung weather the indignities of their roles.

Suh has a hefty job crafting the story of Moy’s life from the little newspaper and the available historical documents on her life. By extending the play’s journey beyond what is known of the real-life Moy, he balances presentational, almost vaudeville-esque performances alongside an empathetically drawn captive slowly growing aware of the wrongs done against her.

The play walks carefully between placing blame and asking audiences to consider what they see when they look at those from cultures and backgrounds that are different and, therefore, perhaps, seen less as fellow humans than oddities.

“The Chinese Lady” by Lloyd Suh and directed by Gregory Keng Strasser plays American Stage’s Raymond James Theater, 163 3rd St. N, St. Petersburg, through Feb. 25. For tickets, visit americanstage.org.

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