One only has to catch sight of the set for Lloyd Suh’s beautiful and brutal play, The Chinese Lady, expertly directed by Ralph B. Peña, to feel instantly that this is what the Long Wharf Theatre does best. On a small platform on the Claire Tow Stage stands a huge, ancient, steel shipping container, stamped with the green patina of corrosion. The container is the only thing we see at first, standing ominously on a black floor and flanked by black curtains.
Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set has already begun to tell us a story, although how that story will unfold remains a mystery even after the lights reveal Atung (Jon Norman Schneider) using all his might to push the container upstage until it is flush with those black curtains. Atung then pries open the doors to reveal a very different kind of container: ornate and sparsely furnished, with a chair as its centerpiece, and on the chair, posed perfectly, a young Chinese girl: Afong Moy.
Brought to America in 1834 by the Carne Brothers, fourteen-year-old Afong Moy, played with heartbreaking innocence by Shannon Tyo, is an exhibit, intended both to appeal to the Victorian fascination with the so-called Orient, and to help the Carne Brothers sell their Chinese furniture and goods. Of course, we are the gawkers who pay “25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children” to watch Afong Moy eat with delicate chopsticks, talk with us through the carefully censored words of Atung, her translator, and—the centerpiece of the show—to walk in a tiny circle around her chair on her small, bound, feet.
Afong Moy is a real person, purportedly the first Chinese woman to arrive in America. Very little is known about Afong Moy, but in Suh’s telling, she is an idealist young girl who believes that she is in the United States to promote cultural understanding between the two countries. Although in reality, Afong Moy was a viewed as a curiosity—rather than a person—passed from the Carne Brothers to P.T. Barnum, who showed her with his “freaks,” she also traveled the nation and saw much that her American female peers could only imagine.
Lloyd Suh gives Afong Moy back her humanity, and Atung, too—sensitively played by Schneider—is very much a human being who must walk a delicate line between pleasing those in the outside world and protecting Afong Moy, as much as he can, from the horrifying indignities of her position. Director Peña has created a nuanced and merciless atmosphere around these two, and the brilliant creative team supports him in every way. Lee’s scenic design is both beautiful and deeply disturbing, as it turns us into voyeurs, as do Linda Cho’s ornate costumes. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design and Fabian Obispo’s extraordinary composition and sound design immerse us completely in the characters’ world.
This is not a comfortable world to inhabit, and that is the brilliance of this production of A Chinese Lady. I will confess to tears at the end, and to leaving the theater deeply ashamed of my country. This is not to say that the play and the production lack moments of levity and charm. However, playwright, cast, and designers all ask hard and disturbing questions, and these are questions we must grapple with as America seems to be sliding backwards, towards the country we see on the stage.
For tickets ($59), call Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven at 203-693-1486 or online at longwharf.org. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and wear a mask.