Afong Moy came to the United States from Guangzhou, China in 1834 at the age of 14. As the first woman from China to enter America, she was used as a sideshow attraction to attract the masses. Hear her story in The Chinese Lady at BlueBarn Theatre.
Seldom do I find myself falling so deep into a show that I physically snap back to reality as though awakening from a dream. But that’s exactly what happened with this show. Lloyd Suh has written a deeply immersive tale. It’s very stylized as 9/10ths of the show is presented as a sideshow. But Suh has a tremendous gift for words as the stylized nature plus the delivery of the actors gives them an almost hypnotic power and makes one forget she or he is simply watching a show.
Wai Yim provides the production with an enthralling piece of direction. Clearly he understands the play inside and out. He makes full use of the stylized nature of the play, even having his actors add balletic movement which adds another layer to an already nuanced production. I absolutely loved his staging as he placed Moy in a living painting which is apropos for the woman who was always being looked at. He’s led his two actors to ironclad performances whose sizzling chemistry is reflected in some of the smoothest cue pickups and back and forth I’ve ever heard.
Jimmy Nguyen is not only an amazingly versatile actor, but he also has a voice made for storytelling. His Atung is referred to as being irrelevant, but his irrelevance is his strength as he knows how to hide in the background. His power is that he goes unnoticed which also serves as his prison. Nguyen’s delivery is so adroit and sardonic and it serves the dual purpose of being humorous, but also showing that Atung suppresses a lot of anger and darkness. Nugyen has two shining moments. The first is when he acts as a translator between Moy and Andrew Jackson and he effortlessly transitions between the proper and serious Atung with ramrod posture to the laconic slouching and southern drawl of Jackson. The second is when he shares a dream (or at least part of it) where it’s clear he is fully aware of how poorly he and Moy are treated and his longing to be in the foreground and to be treated as an equal.
Lisa Tejero demonstrates a true mastery of the craft with her arc as Afong Moy. Tejero is completely believable as the innocent 14 year old who is unaware that she was virtually sold into slavery. With her coy and coquettish chuckles and naiveté, Tejero’s Moy truly believes she is on a two year journey of presenting her culture to America and then two years stretches into decades. With each passing year, Tejero seems to age and wither before our eyes as Moy loses her sense of identity from being away from her homeland and the realization that her value is simply to be gawked at until she gets too old for even that. Her final moments when she “goes back to where it began” and is what she truly should be is a game changer and a moment of clarity for both audience and actor.
Bill Van Deest aids Yim’s living picture staging by literally framing Moy within a giant picture frame and a room that almost looks like it was brushed into existence by the strokes of a painter and has a surprise or two in store for you. Moy’s room is greatly bolstered by Amy Reiner’s props which give it the feel of a traditional home in China from the 19th century. Izumi Inaba’s costumes are both culturally and period correct with gorgeous gowns, robes, and a headdress for Moy and Atung’s hat and garments. The lighting of Maya Pacana-Bredenkamp add to the show’s hypnotic nature with ethereal colors of watery green, purplish, and red that change with a strike of a gong.
The autobiographical presentation of the show really lends it strength and allows the audience to truly put themselves in Moy’s shoes and feel her sense of innocence, disconnect, and especially her loss of her sense of humanity with the cruel treatment visited upon the Chinese people living in America after the passing of the Chinse Exclusion Act. Ladies and gentleman, this is theatre. It entertains. It educates. And it changes you. Walk into this show and you’ll be transformed.
The Chinese Lady runs at BlueBarn Theatre through April 23. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm show on April 16. Tickets cost $37 and can be purchased by calling 402-345-1576 or visiting www.bluebarn.org. BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.