By John Lyle Belden
Afong Moy was the most amazing exotic spectacle many people had ever seen, and she just had to be herself.
Born in China, circa 1820, Moy was effectively purchased from her family by American merchant brothers Nathaniel and Frederic Crane as an enterprising way to promote the sale of Chinese goods in New York. Starting at age 14, she would sit in an exotically furnished room while people who had paid admission (starting at 10 cents a person, a nickel per child) would watch her. She would occasionally walk briefly on her tiny, traditionally-bound feet. She would eat delicately with chopsticks. She would ritually make tea. She could even talk through her Cantonese interpreter, Atung.
This was the act. It made her a sensation, touring the U.S. and even getting a meeting with President Andrew Jackson. But by the Civil War era, not even exploitation by P.T. Barnum could save her fading stardom. However, playwright Lloyd Suh notes that America is still staring, still curious, yet misunderstanding the otherness of Moy and her people – not acknowledging that Asians are as human as the ones outside the room, looking in.
Indiana Repertory Theatre presents the local premiere of Indy-area native Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” on the IRT’s intimate Upperstage, where Mi Kang sits as Moy, presented for our edification, with the help of Trieu Tran as faithful but “irrelevant” Atung. Direction is by Ralph B. Pena, who has been with the play since its world premiere with Ma-Yi Theater Company in New York in 2018.
Kang, who has stood in Moy’s special shoes since a Chicago production earlier this year, brings an amiable, appealing charm to the “Lady” who became a public curiosity as a girl. As naïve as one would expect, the teen has us rooting for her with her ambitious perspective. She sees herself as a sort of cultural interpreter (something 21st-century audiences would be more familiar with) bringing awareness of both the differences and similarities between two peoples. To the gawkers, though, she was mainly – as Jackson himself plainly put it – just another curiosity, a prettier freak show.
Atung sets up the show, brings it to a close, and sets it up again. It is his job, a burden to his body, and as Tran lets us subtly see, to his soul. Being a little older and experienced (and being bilingual, knowing what the Whites around him are actually saying) he is aware, but doesn’t want to do more than hint to Moy the truth of her situation. He confesses to us a unique love for her, but never forgets his place in this world. With practiced inner fortitude, he puts on a stereotypical smile, lifts the bells and (*ching!*) gets on with another performance. Ironically, like his ill-used countrymen elsewhere in America, it is “irrelevance” that keeps him employed.
Kang lets Moy gently age before us – seen at 14, 16, 17, 29, 44… – and gain a sense of how she is being used, but she never lets go of her sense that she is still a sort of ambassador, that her mission of unity is still attainable. Filtered through that perception, she gives us a serious perspective on the events of her century.
“I have always thought Lloyd’s play to be timeless,” Pena says in his program note. “Today, I think of it as timely.”
There is no death record of Afong Moy. As this blending of Suh’s words and Kang’s performance demonstrate, “The Chinese Lady” is still with us, inviting us to look, and to understand.
Performances run through Nov. 6 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St., in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. Get tickets and information at irtlive.com.