By Mary Boyle
Most children in public schools in America take a US History class. If I mention the words "Manifest Destiny," "Transcontinental Railroad," and "Gold Rush," most people will have at least a hazy recollection of learning about these things in class. You may remember that many of the workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad, for instance, were Chinese, and that many of those workers came here by the lure of California's Gold Rush but, as far as the Chinese in America are concerned, that's about all your average person would know. Digging into that history a bit further is what inspired playwright Lloyd Suh to write The Chinese Lady, which premiered just last July in Massachutses, then in New York this past October, and now continues its journey on The Rep's Stiemke Studio stage as part of the John (Jack) D. Lewis New Play Development Program.
Directed by May Adrales, who also directed In the Heights earlier this season at The Rep, The Chinese Lady is based on the true story of Afong Moy, who was brought to the US by the Carne Brothers, importers of Chinese goods, in 1834 when she was just 14 years old. She was set up as an exhibit in the Peale Museum in New York in a room furnished with the very goods that the Carne Brothers imported (and which were conveniently available for purchase after the show). Audiences paid to watch Moy eat with chopsticks, drink tea in a ritualistic manner, and walk about on her tiny, bound feet. This was the age of P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum in New York featured a number of physically or culturally different people in what was very much a human zoo and, while the supposed point of these exhibitions was education, in truth, the people in the exhibits, like Afong Moy, were being exploited.
Lisa Helmi Johanson delivers a moving performance as Afong Moy, who is assisted by her translator and helper, Atung, played by Jon Norman Schneider. Moy begins her time in America when China's contact with the Western world is limited; she is a true anomaly and views herself as an ambassador of her culture and a potential bridge between China and America. When the people see her, they will see a true Chinese lady. As time moves on, the relationship between China and America changes through economic and political changes of which Moy isn't even aware, but which affect how she is viewed by audiences, as well as her value to her employers. Racism, sexism, imperialism, cultural appropriation — The Chinese Lady touches on all of these topics while providing the US History lesson we all missed out on, and yet, the play is not about these things, but about really seeing one another. Timely and exceptionally well-written, Milwaukee audiences are privileged to be among the first to see this play, thanks to The Rep's commitment to new work — don't miss the opportunity.
The Chinese Lady runs through March 24th at the Stiemke Studio, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.