In 1834, 14 year-old Afong Moy arrived in America. She was the first recorded Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. She was brought over by merchants Francis and Nathaniel Carnes, with the hope that such an unfamiliar and unusual young woman would promote the sales of the Chinese goods they were marketing. Interact Theatre has selected Lloyd Suh’s play, “The Chinese Lady” about Afong Moy’s experiences, as its opener in its return to live theater. It’s a wonderful choice and an outstanding production.
The stage is simple. We will soon meet Afong Moy and her translator/interpreter, Atung, but first, we meet sound designer and composer, Mel Hsu as she gently plays the many instruments that will accompany the journey that Afong Moy will take over the decades. The music is warm and welcoming.
“The Chinese Lady” is a work of historical fiction, as no one knows what Afong Moy knew or thought. But we do know that she was regarded as an oddity, as a side show of something exotic. Though she came to help sell Asian goods, people soon came and paid just to see her. From her mastery of chop sticks, to her colorful wardrobe and traditionally bound feet, Americans wanted to see what a Chinese woman was about.
It is on record that she actually met President Andrew Jackson. In a hilarious scene in the play, Atung, brilliantly portrayed by Dan Kim, is both the translator and Jackson himself. There are many other funny moments in “The Chinese Lady,” but there is also a sense of tragedy about her life. She must remind us that she is a human in a world that saw only a stereotype.
After some years, Alfong Moy toured with showman P.T. Barnum and became a side show curiosity in his circus as she joined the other “freaks.” She would unwrap her feet and the audience learned how those feet came to be so small- breaking the bones of her toes regularly from childhood.
I’ve saved the best for last, Bi Jean Ngo- the actor who portrays Alfong Moy. She is mesmerizing as she talks to us. She doesn’t use a Chinese accent. She doesn’t have to. She tells us of her travels across the U.S. She tells us about the changes in her life and in the country she now inhabits. She makes us laugh. She makes us cry. I was riveted to her every word, including the accurate history she shares.
We also come to see the prejudice that developed against her and the Chinese people. After waves of anti-Chinese violence, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, ending all immigration from China. I learned so much while being thoroughly entertained.
The 95 minutes flew by and I was yearning for more. With an equally superb performance by Dan Kim and seamless direction by Justin Jain, I’ve never felt better about recommending a play. It’s a must see!
“The Chinese Lady.” InterAct Theatre Company at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia, PA 19102, 215-568-8079. interacttheatre.org Thru November 21, 2021.