‘Chinese Lady’ a strong start to Adirondack Theatre fest season

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GLENS FALLS — A bar conversation I had at the beginning of last week became a vivid if inadvertent affirmation of the need for plays like two I attended in the following days that take on difficult parts of our nation’s history.

Sitting at a restaurant bar with a friend of like-minded political persuasion as cable news silently showed coverage of that day’s congressional hearing about the Jan. 6, 2021, breaching of the U.S. Capitol, I remarked that the committee’s findings were what I’d expected to hear, often worse, but it was a necessary airing and holding to account for an unprecedented and sickening incident in our country. For the two of us, both journalists, such belief is part of our core conviction of the importance of getting something on the record and on view for the public. 

A stranger sitting nearby interjected: “It’s just showboating and a massive waste of millions of our taxpayer dollars that will change nothing.”

My friend and I exchanged a glance that said, basically, “Well, here’s to a peaceful evening disrupted,” and we started a conversation, trying a variety of tactics, but the stranger wouldn’t budge: The attack, he said, has been blown out of proportion; former President Trump wasn’t responsible; and the congressional committee — all allegedly multimillionaires as a result corruption, despite their low-six-figure salaries — were exploiting the situation for their own benefit. And nothing would change.

I thought of this argument as I watched the national touring production of the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a searing indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama that retains an of-the-moment resonance in today’s America. It runs through Sunday at Proctors in Schenectady.

And I thought of it again during Friday’s performance of Adirondack Theatre Festival’s production of “The Chinese Lady,” the first show of the 28th season for a company dedicated to presenting new and recent work. The play, which had its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company four summers ago, is author Lloyd Suh’s fictionalization of the true story of Afong Moy, who was brought from China to the U.S. in 1834 as a 14-year-old girl and spent 30 years on display in museums and circus sideshows around the country.

Said to be the first Chinese woman in America, Moy was supposed to help promote cultural understanding, though the manner in which it was done is cringe-inducing today. At the center of the stage is a raised, curtained circular platform that, when opened, reveals a Western idea of what a Chinese room might have looked like 200 years ago, with furniture, artwork, vases, silks and more. (The set is by Misha Kachman.)

A seated Moy (superbly played by Sami Ma) tells the audience:

“This room in which I am seated is intended to be representative of China, just as I am intended to be representative of The Chinese Lady: the first woman from the Orient ever to set foot in America, and yet this room is unlike any room in China, and I am unlike any lady to ever live.”

Twice a day, six days a week, assisted by her interpreter, Atung (Whit K. Lee, excellent), who is invaluable to the play, she “performs”: sits, eats, drinks tea and walks on her tiny, 4-inch-long bound feet for a gawking audience that diminishes over the years. During her lifetime — official records for Moy end in the 1850s, but Suh’s play imagines her living in the U.S. into the 20th century — Chinese immigrants went from having Americans consider them exotic but harmless to being a group exploited to build the transcontinental railroad to, by the late 1870s, a people so feared that whole communities were killed en masse by vigilantes, and the federal government banned the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 until 1943.

At ATF, “The Chinese Lady” is being directed by Shannon Tyo, who played Moy in the Barrington Stage production, which was revived at the Public Theater in Manhattan earlier this year. A bold, strong and unusual play, it has the actors speak directly to the audience — sometimes as if contemporaries from the play’s era, at others as if we’re today’s theater audience.   

Almost all of the play’s scenes start the same, with Atung opening the circular curtain around Moy’s room, and her words begin similarly. As “The Chinese Lady” progresses, however, Moy’s attitude changes from youthful excitement and optimism to despair deepened by decades of routine and the certainty that she hadn’t improved cultural understanding at all. In fact, she witnessed firsthand as racial divides widened, their animosities manifesting more viciously.

And so we are here today. Hate crimes against Asian American increased 339 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Also last year, only 3 percent of attacks on Asians in New York City resulted in a conviction for a hate crime, as reported by the Asian American Bar Association of New York. 

That’s why we need plays like “The Chinese Lady” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That’s why Shakespeare has Hamlet tell a band of actors that a play’s purpose is to to hold “the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

If one video of a sea turtle with a plastic drinking straw stuck in its nostril can galvanize a movement toward wider use of paper straws, then I have to believe theater can make a difference.

In “The Chinese Lady,” Atung explains that stories and symbols gain larger meaning if we believe they are true, even if, as in the case of the Liberty Bell and its fabled fissure, that’s not actually what happened.

Atung says, “Like cracks in a bell or a story of when it first rang, we embellish and interpret, perhaps not in pursuit of the literal truth but some other more intangible truth about ourselves and the nature of truth itself.”  


  

 

“The Chinese Lady”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Adirondack Theatre Festival, Charles R. Wood Theatre, 207 Glen St., Glens Falls
Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission
Continues: June 19 to 25: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday; and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 26
Tickets: $25 to $45
Info: 518-480-4878 and atfestival.org
  


 

 

 

 

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