ST PETERSBURG — On Friday, American Stage opened Lloyd Suh's The Chinese Lady, a historical drama telling the story of Afong Moy, the first known Chinese female to immigrate to the United States.
Moy came to the U.S. in 1834 after two American merchants struck a deal with her father to bring the teenager to New York City, where they hoped that displaying her would draw interest in the Chinese goods they were importing.
Billed as "The Chinese Lady," Moy served as a ticketed attraction. Wearing Chinese apparel and surrounded by "various Chinese curiosities," patrons were in awe of her "tiny feet," the result of binding, a Chinese custom in which the bones of the feet are repeatedly broken and tightly bound in order to limit growth. Referred to as "lotus feet," they were considered a status symbol and sign of feminine beauty in China during that period.
In Suh’s telling, Moy is tended to by Atung, a translator who works for food and a cot. While Moy first sees the ordeal as an opportunity to participate in meaningful cultural exchange, it soon becomes clear that her role is far less glamorous than she had imagined. It only becomes more so as more Chinese immigrants arrive and interest in such an oddity wanes. The story examines themes of racial and cultural prejudices, identity, and exotification.
Che'Li is absolutely dazzling as Afong Moy, evoking as much laughter as empathy in a truly delightful performance. Jacob Yeh turns in a gorgeous performance as Atung, the dutiful servant who both pines for and pities the beautiful woman from his native land.
The Chinese Lady is a substantive work that manages to entertain, educate, and incite simultaneously, and American Stage has done the play significant justice in this stellar production. Directed by Gregory Keng Strasser, it runs through Feb. 25. Visit the American Stage website for more information.
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