Made You Look: Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady”

Early in The Chinese Lady, Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo) acknowledges the preposterous artificiality of the endeavor: the dissonance between the character’s time and place and ours, the discrepancy in power between subject and object, the presentational nature of her movements and the infantilized lilt of her voice and the sonorousness of her translator Atung’s (Daniel K. Isaac), the set — nay, the proscenium — as frame and cage. And there’s no bad seat in the house. Except, maybe ontologically, yours. She, an idea and imagining of the first Chinese woman brought from Guangzhou Province (where this writer was adopted from!) to the United States (New York, in fact) in 1834 by the Carne brothers at age 14 as exhibit and performance and ill-conceived bridge between East and West, addresses the audience, both the idea of an audience and the one that sits before her.

With few primary documents or historical materials to solidify the intimation of an interiority, Afong is proudly fabulation and a bit of melodrama. The curiosity that drew white audiences centuries ago to her, the chance to observe — this writer heaves his shoulders and sighs — otherness in a contained space, hasn’t so much changed as it has evolved and been adorned with, as Helen Shaw sharply puts it, “liberal delusion”. The rhetoric of representation and the progressive changes in society and the livelihoods of (mostly East) Asian Americans notwithstanding, a whiff of the good old voyeurism into, and a temptation to purchase, the exotic remains. It’s just been inverted as optical do-gooding, a genre of empathy that still requires the table setting of personal trauma directly linked to complacent, even aggressive peering. Exhibitions of this kind (and this one was taken over by PT Barnum) may no longer exist, but don’t other platforms, under the guise of agency, still carry the same scent of the oppressed’s sweat? A kind of socio-political rubbernecking.

Bending and prodding a poisonous stereotype, Atung knows this, and Suh, too. And it’s not that Afong isn’t aware of the violence of this gaze, but Suh plays with Atung and Afong’s relationship to their own self-awareness and understanding of one another within this space of observation, messes with the linearity of how they know how they’re seen and perceived and when. At times, Isaac’s voice, a sloping baritone, cascades to dramatic effect, while at others, he sharpens it, calcifies his vowels as an ironic, punchy nod. But Afongs’s understanding of her conditions, and our conditions, is, perhaps, more slippery, Tyo’s voice pitched initially at the top, blooming with wonder and hope despite an actual astringency that suggests the confinement of the situation. It is sculpted to be polite, to be demure and educational, to orbit and approximate the idea of a young Chinese lady’s voice. It is, with all the awful connotations baked in, the sound of imported porcelaine. You know, that simper. Suh certainly does. And Suh and Tyo slip in anachronisms in expressiveness, in wording, in the clip of a line reading. A piece of speech lands softly and leaf-like; the next a thorn’s pierce. The Chinese Lady, particularly embodied by Tyo’s precision, dangles what you’re not supposed to see as what you are supposed to see in front of you. If the show is premised on a “more than you bargained for” frame — that there’s something else, something deeper to this Chinese woman who was consumed and dehumanized as white people’s gazes tore through her soul and unthreaded her identity — then those slippages are, rightfully and horribly, ripostes to an audience buying into much the same dynamic.

The rest of the non-Asian audience must know that’s what’s charged in the room, right? They must know that their indelicate responses to some of the (intentionally, I assume) hackier material towards the beginning is both setting up the historically rooted dynamic only to disassemble it as soon as possible, and thus implicate them in the process? That Tyo’s feet-bound laps around the small set, that her emergence from the dark and lit flower-like against paintings of petals behind her, that her Anna May Wong-esque drag from a cigarette are all ways of tinkering with the cultural imagination of Asianness and its performance only to complicate and deepen its aesthetic and political history? That these are all rather pointed ways of examining this presumably non-Asian audience’s relationship to Asianness, its proximity to authenticity nearly, like Atung, “irrelevant”? I mean, Suh makes it so clear that we’re in for an evening of signifiers and signified, and if we can even distinguish between them both as a symptom of postmodernity but, more pressingly, colonialism.

It’s ultimately a fairly cynical perspective, the artifacts gone and the memories necessarily forged. For some greater truth? Sure. This misanthropy, which leaks through as Afong ages and her voice sinks gradually in tone and her movements betray pain and weariness and she occasionally breaks away to really disclose to us (or maybe not?), is the show’s most interesting trait. Not merely that Asian Americans are part of the fabric of the United States, but that fabric, literally and more metaphorically, is in tatters. It’s most moving when the urgency is in the confrontation of what looking does, the vampirism of devouring a person on the gazer’s terms. Afong’s resilience is lugged year and year, city after city, but also corseted in the same box with the same props. I’ll fall into her trap for a moment, as one who gazed upon her and has, at best, a complex relationship to their Asian identity: she reminded me of Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Someone who is bought and but never valued, and whose emotional durability verges on the unsophisticated and infantile.

Perhaps Suh is disinclined from judging Afong — or his version of her, or our version of her — too harshly. Because when she does emotionally disrobe, they’re the most incendiary, devastating moments of the play. All the Brechtian efforts to ensure the audience knows of the conditions of this show are inverted to grant us an illusion and reprieve to believe Afong is not only a theatrical and intellectual experiment, but someone whose heart, normally stitched in cerulean silk on her sleeve for the sake of our enjoyment, is actually sheathed by it, fragile and fine and growing more brittle with each set of eyes. The frailty, from the weight of then and now, colored by arsenic in the social and artistic waters, is more interesting, more ideologically dynamic. Afong is a Chinese lady deconstructed: this woman, a contact sheet of symbols of Chinese-ness, is cobbled together by a distancing self-reflexivity, but its image of Afong as an interpositive on papers that’s frayed and yellowed suggests an acuity regarding how to imbue a symbol with life and a psychology that has, too, been distressed by condition and context. Every beautiful photo is bathed in toxins to bring out its pulchritude.

But, as affecting as it is to be challenged by the looking we do and the implications it has, The Chinese Lady does seem, at times, trapped within its own frame. It gestures towards even more radical, unusual, and instigative and provocative dramaturgy, hints at ways it’ll truly discomfit the audience, as opposed to begging at its feet. At the last moment, Afong’s wavering hope wins out over the more jaundiced gaze at the past, present, and future the show’s been contemplating more keenly. It seems to cower at giving into a more pessimistic perspective about visibility, and even if you let the jeweled tears of (undeserved) guilt wet the perspective of the show as a whole to mutate its function, it feels a little like the play’s second-guessed itself in a way that doesn’t fit with its fundamental emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual architecture. But that doesn’t mar it as a whole; the whole effort is there to bear those kinds of psychic scars anyways. Appropriation comes up, of course; Susan Sontag wrote, “To photograph is to appropriate what is being photographed.” What about dramatizing, theatricalizing? On the one hand, less soul-sucking, more a kind of reanimation, or a seance. But The Chinese Lady, in its admission of being Asianness and Asian Americanness akimbo and its final deference to its audience, ends, inexplicably, with both a bang and a simper.

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Kyle Turner

Kyle Turner

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc