How powerful can a walk be? It’s a simple action. You learn to do it as a toddler. You put one foot in front of the other. You get from one place to another. But the way you handle a walk: how you carry yourself, where you are allowed to walk and where you feel comfortable walking, how far you walk for yourself — that sets it apart. In The Chinese Lady, when Tuyết Thị Phạm and Đavid Lee Huỳnh walk, they bring revelatory and remarkable life to a history play that is perfect for Everyman Theatre in its Baltimore premiere — where Afong Moy herself once walked.
Lloyd Suh’s work, the most produced play of 2021–2022, opens the curtain to the story of Afong Moy, widely considered to be the first Chinese woman immigrant in America. In 1834, she began touring the United States along with her interpreter, Atung, and a “Room” of objects from China. Originally enlisted by merchants Nathanial and Frederick Carnes, people across the U.S. would pay 50 cents to look at her and the Room.
In this show-within-a-show, Afong Moy (Tuyết Thị Phạm) directly addresses the audience and narrates the story of different stages of her life, typically along with a proud display of her walking with her bound feet, musings on tea and meals where she eats using chopsticks — until she is limited. Each time, Atung (Đavid Lee Huỳnh), her translator, opens and closes the curtain to begin, with a contemplative walk from one side of the stage to the other — until he doesn’t. Her first idealistic years of hope and possibility are explored, followed by her struggles, head-on.
The play’s form and content inherently make you look and listen, through its balance of oral history and fact, the story the characters want to tell, and the story that is. This production is historic, yet present. Nana Dakin’s intimate direction shows what’s there without feeling exploitative and aims toward understanding. In this staging, you can simply watch and witness, especially because Afong Moy is always placed in one specific area of the stage at a time to start out each new moment. Your eye travels to figure out where she’s going to be when the curtain next opens, instilling natural curiosity. And yet it makes you wonder: How do you watch and experience a show about the impact of gaze? How does it feel to be seen, when you are seen as a perpetual foreigner, and have to carve out your own space?
Tuyết Thị Phạm’s Afong Moy has grace and respect for herself and for others. It is historical Asian joy to see her dream of finding similarity within differences, with whimsy, delight, and playfulness, especially at the beginning. She balances representing her country while being on display with care and poise. Seeing her quiet yet determined pride as a young girl is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Even more compelling is her journey in empowerment as she matures. She tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to say what she dislikes, implying what’s wrong with the gazes she experiences, but it never seems vindictive; it’s driven by a desire to connect. Moments of more presentational delivery give the feeling of “This is what’s happening. Isn’t that interesting? How does it feel?” A turning point when she walks for herself, despite feeling alone, is tear-jerkingly powerful.
There is humor in her relationship with Atung, jokingly deemed “irrelevant” — which later has more serious implications. As Atung, Đavid Lee Huỳnh is stoic, “just doing his job” and “trying to push back the care.” There’s obviously something underneath. He first takes a star turn playing President Andrew Jackson and himself in Jackson’s meeting with Afong Moy, where Atung’s mistranslations are painfully limiting to her intelligence, but she will also feel hurt if he told the truth about Jackson’s responses: a dynamic moment for both actors.
He takes the stage himself directly after, in a physical breakdown, starting on the floor — far from standing tall and walking — where he reveals his wishes that will never be possible and his bitterness about his lack of agency. In contrast to Afong Moy’s optimism about difference, he sees how differences bring danger: how the white gaze works. Huỳnh’s aggressive, power-driven delivery gives audiences pause, as it’s the play’s one moment of genuine anger.
The design furthers the direction towards empathy. Lighting designer Emma Deane keeps the stage largely darkly lit, beyond spotlights on the Room’s “exotic” objects, the three settings in a line for Afong Moy and light downstage for Atung, and puts the focus squarely on the performers and objects. Though let’s just say that your instincts to see the final moments are amplified.
In Meghan Raham’s set design, Everyman’s stage is transformed into the Room, with black walls that feel confining, like a museum, even in early scenes. Debra Kim Sivigny’s costume designs have Afong Moy in exquisite traditional dress at the beginning, which later leans into the stereotypical as she gets downgraded and devalued by the people in charge of her fate — until she’s in a peasant-like outfit at the end during her impassioned call for empathy. The eerie techno soundscapes by Tosin Olufolabi that accompany Atung’s pre-scene walks progressively get more expansive and representative of the journey.
The journey is a well-traveled one, to see this show. As someone not from Baltimore, I noticed how the Baltimore lines hit with this audience. It makes sense for the place and space, and it also makes sense for folks who may not know firsthand. It hit me all at once, how far I go to see and uplift plays like this. History plays land the best when they feel present and relevant. And this Chinese Lady is present and relevant.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Chinese Lady plays through November 19, 2023, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette St., Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets ($39–$75, depending on show date and seating choice) online or contact the box office by phone at 410-752-2208 (Monday through Friday, 10 AM – 4 PM; Saturday, 12 PM – 4 PM) or email [email protected].
Accessibility: Everyman emphasizes their commitment to accessibility for all, including those with economic challenges. There are eight seats available for each performance at Pay What You Choose prices.
The program for The Chinese Lady is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, though not required. Everyman’s complete health and safety guide is here.
Afong Moy: Tuyết Thị Phạm
Atung: Đavid Lee Huỳnh
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Nana Dakin
Scenic Design: Meghan Raham
Costume Design: Debra Kim Sivigny
Lighting Design: Emma Deane
Sound Design: Tosin Olufolabi
Wig Design: Denise O’Brien
Stage Manager: Kate Kilbane
Stage Manager for the performance reviewed: Laura Smith