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New Play Tells Little-Known Story Of 1st Chinese Woman To Set Foot In U.S.

Shannon Tyo in "The Chinese Lady" at the Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy Eloy Garcia)
Shannon Tyo in "The Chinese Lady" at the Barrington Stage Company. (Courtesy Eloy Garcia)

In 1834, 14-year-old Afong Moy was brought to New York City by traders, who displayed her in a museum. She was the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Moy’s little-known story is told in playwright Lloyd Suh‘s new play “The Chinese Lady,” which debuted at the Barrington Stage Company (@BarringtonStage) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Suh and actor Shannon Tyo, who plays Moy, speak with Here & Now’s Robin Young about the show, a co-production with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company. It will run at Barrington through Aug. 11 and open at Ma-Yi in the fall.

Interview Highlights

On discovering Moy’s history

Lloyd Suh: “I came across the story in the preface of a book about the history of Asian America, just like a sentence about her. It sparked something in me and I then went into kind of a deep dive trying to research anything I could find about her and was startled to find that there was not a lot.”

On the similar ostracization Tyo and Moy experience, being Asian-American

Shannon Tyo: “The interesting thing about being Asian-American is that we are not quite at the point where we’re able to be separated out into Chinese-American or Japanese-American or Korean-American. And in that sense, I think Asian-Americans in general can very much identify with the idea of being looked at and being othered by Americans who potentially would not consider us to be American.”

On Moy’s character arc and personality

LS: “I want to make a point of clarity, that the notion of ownership is a complicated one as well. The historical assumption is that [Moy] was going to the United States as an ambassador, not in this explicitly demeaned way, but more in a way that could arguably or theoretically be conceived as this incredible opportunity to share something of her culture. And so a big part of the character’s introduction is in this sense of hope. And the other part of that question is about how do we even begin to imagine what the psychology or the motivations of our Afong Moy might be. As the play progresses, it becomes about the yearning of human beings to be relevant and to make a connection.”

On the prevalence of cultural relativism throughout the play

ST: “Foot binding is a really extreme example I think of cultural relativism. I’ve watched a lot of interviews with women who are alive right now who do have bound feet, and there’s a lot of discussion about how it’s very painful. Obviously, it alters the way that you walk for the rest of your life. But a lot of women are very proud of it, because it is seen as a sign of social status, and the very interesting point that Afong makes in the play is equating it to practices in America that were seen potentially by outsiders as barbaric, such as corsets, and the very extreme example she makes is the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“In every culture, I think there are things that are seen by outsiders to be curious at the least, and barbaric at the most extreme. The important thing is to focus on the fact that Afong doesn’t think it’s awful. She finds it to be rather beautiful in a way.”

On Suh’s expectations for audience members

LS: “It’s very much my hope that the play asks a contemporary audience watching it to interrogate their own assumptions about what their feelings are when they enter, and what they are at the end of the play when they’ve spent some time with Afong Moy.”

On the moment in the play when Moy meets President Andrew Jackson and Moy’s translator, Atung, simplifies what she says

LS: “Ihope I’m saying more than one thing.I think it’s a very complicated moment. There is certainly the difficulty of communication, what one hears in translation. As that scene develops, it shifts rather dramatically both in terms of Atung’s relationship with the translation, his relationship with how he’s translating for her, not just from her words, but translating Jackson’s words back to her.”

On the perception and responsibilities of Asian-American artists

Suh: “I think of this notion that, as Asian-American theater artists, how are we seen? What do people expect from us? How do we navigate with integrity the expectation that we should perform? At what point do you begin to lose your personhood?”

On the Chinese massacre of 1872 in Los Angeles and Moy’s guilt in feeling she failed to win the Chinese over to Americans

Tyo: “It’s heartbreaking. It was one of the things that I first connected with upon reading it, because it is such a generous act, to take the blame upon herself. And [it] just speaks to the tremendous responsibility that she felt when she first came over as a 14-year-old child, that she was going to come to America and be an ambassador.

“Then to come to terms with the disappointment of her expectations, it’s heartbreaking, and [that] this sort of history remains so unknown within the realm of American history is heartbreaking. And I would hope that somebody who came to see the play would be able to relate more to these historical events, because you’re being led through by this character who you watched grow.”

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