In Viola Spolin’s landmark work Improvisation for the theater, the very first exercise is called “exposure”. During this exercise, a group of actors are divided into halves and instructed in simply looking at others and letting others look at them. This misleadingly difficult task often challenges new artists greatly; not only do they experience the “stage fright” of being watched, they also realize how uncomfortable it can be to shamelessly stare at someone looking back at you – even when they are explicitly allowed to do so. TimeLine Theaters’ production of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese ladynow on stage at Teater Wit, questioning our cultural preference for exoticizing and watching “the other” from a safe distance without really to seeand what it says about our maturity as a society.
The Chinese lady
Until 18/6: Wed-Thurs at 19.30, Fri kl. 20:00, Sat. 16.00 and 20.00, Sun at 14.00; also Tues 6/14, 2pm; distance performance Tues 6/14; open captions Fri 6/10 and Sat 6/11, 4pm; audio description Fri 17/6; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-281-8463, timelinetheatre.com, $ 42- $ 57 (student discount 35 percent; military, first aiders, veterans, and their families $ 25).
In 1834, a 14-year-old girl named Afong Moy was the very first lady to be brought from China to America, who was then exhibited at a museum for yawning crowds at a cost of 25 cents for adults and ten cents for children. The practice of consuming other cultures for entertainment is a peculiar American institution, ranging from Sarah (or Saartjie) Baartman, to circus freak shows to the present, where stage plays, movies and books serve as “education” for the predominantly white audience, while often at the same time exploitation of deselected communities.
Afong Moy is wonderfully portrayed by Mi Kang, an incredibly versatile actor who takes the character from the innocence of youth as Moy experiences the joy of adventure in a new country after being sold into slavery by his parents for a “temporary” two years. stay in a museum, to the heartbreaking reality of old age, as the ugly truth about her predicament becomes indisputable.
Although she may be alone in America, Moy is thankfully not the only Chinese at the museum. Her translator Afong is thoughtfully portrayed by Glenn Obrero, who seamlessly moves between delivering any role to Moy – a thoughtful caretaker, a teasing brother, a fatherly father and reluctantly a friend. As Moy and Afong go through the motions of their stage show day after day, their emotions tumble, the non-threatening veneer of performances crackling to reveal their white-hot anger over their circumstances – impotent rage with no target that can be hit.
Moy and Afong are completely alone, not only isolated from their country but socially isolated, unable to make money to strike out on their own, unable to start their own families and unable to communicate with each other and the world around them in a way that expresses the complexity and richness of their inner life. A particularly heartbreaking and angry scene in which a momentary expected triumph for Moy is ruined by a powerful white man’s scams and racism, leaving Moy vulnerable in his inability to verbalize and speak for himself, draws a direct line. to the kind of sexual objectification that Asian women experience today. Director Helen Young expertly stages this difficult scene in a thoughtful way that is mercifully non-exploitative.
The Chinese lady is a testament to important parts of history that have previously been swept under the rug – including the opium wars and the debt we owe to Chinese Americans for building the railroads with their sweat and blood. Playwright Suh brilliantly predicts that we will actually be educated about “the other” and further challenges us: “So what?” What is the use of our education, what is the use of learning about other cultures, what is the use of passively observing from a safe distance if we do not see? Have we really been educated if nothing changes? By testifying about the legacy of The Chinese ladywe are challenged to testify about our own actions – or lack thereof.