Are You Looking At Me? The Chinese Lady at Everyman Theatre

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The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, has two objectives, and the fine production at Everyman Theatre addresses them poignantly. The two-person cast, Tuyết Thị Phạm (Afong Moy) and Đavid Lee Huỳnh (Atung), under Nana Dakin’s skillful direction, show the effect of cultural exploitation on the individual. They also, along with the talented design team, raise the question of whether we are all complicit in that exploitation.

Lloyd Suh’s play is loosely based on the experience of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman known to have come to the United States. Moy was brought here as a teenager in 1834 by Francis and Nathaniel Carnes, brothers who imported Chinese luxury goods. Her role was to promote the Carnes’ wares by appearing elaborately costumed, surrounded by fine works of decorative art, and showing paying crowds the manners and customs of a Chinese lady. Moy was later taken up by P. T. Barnum, who put her on tour.

Meghan Raham’s set puts us in the position of Moy’s audience. She speaks to us from a succession of three handsome rooms. Each change of room indicates an advance in time. Imagining herself as a cultural ambassador, Moy demonstrates the use of chopsticks, explains the significance of tea, and, less likely, describes the process of foot binding. She is accompanied by Atung, a young Chinese-American man who serves as her translator and, onstage, her servant. 

Atung also serves to question their uplifting mission. Moy points to the British adoption of Chinese tea and asks Atung how he could object to “such a beautiful example of cultural sharing.” Atung replies, “There is a difference, Afong Moy, between sharing and taking.” Moy knows only too well that they are there to entertain the Americans and get them to buy household goods.


Đavid Lee Huỳnh as Atung
Tuyết Thị Phạm as Afong Moy

As the play progresses, Moy describes the growing nation she encounters. She recalls meeting “Emperor” Andrew Jackson, who boorishly inspected her misshapen foot. But while she portrays a Chinese lady on stage, Moy becomes an American in person. We see her in 1849, slumping in her chair in a dress slit to her thigh, drinking whiskey, and smoking a cigarette. Meanwhile Atung becomes exhausted and discouraged by the part he is playing. In the dramatic high point of the play he undergoes a nervous breakdown and disappears from the action.

Interest in Moy’s act waned after 1840. She gave her last performance in 1850, and nothing is known about what happened to her after that. Consequently, for the last part of the play Lloyd Suh turns Moy into an allegorical figure who speaks for the Chinese who came to this country after the Civil War.

Moy rehearses familiar low points in Sino-American relations such as the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The script does not mention the more positive events, such as American efforts to get Japan to withdraw from China after 1937, which led directly to Pearl Harbor.

Lloyd Suh, however, is less concerned with history than with putting the modern audience in the place of the people who came to see Moy in the 1830s. On stage, her last words are, “I am looking at you. Are you looking at me?” The author’s implication is that of course you are. If we think we are far above the yokels who gawked at Moy in real life, congratulating ourselves while overlooking more current issues between our countries, we haven’t learned a thing.


The Chinese Lady is onstage at the Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Wednesdays through Sundays, through November 19.

Tuyết Thị Phạm as Afong Moy

Images by Kiirstn Pagan Photography courtesy of Everyman Theatre

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