In this age of Instagram and ever-present social media, the tendency to perform an idea of self is not a new concept. In fact, it is likely the source of much existential angst among young and old as we wrestle with our identity, authenticity and loneliness. Add in the extra layer of being Asian American in a country that doesn’t see us unless we’re in our prescribed boxes, and the idea takes on sharpness and poignancy. Are we ever knowable — even now, when almost every moment is recorded for public consumption?
How much more so if we are Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman ever to set foot on American soil? In his play, “The Chinese Lady,” playwright Lloyd Suh imagines the inner story of Afong and the concept of embodying a public persona while also being that real person.
“The Chinese Lady,” which recently played at the Magic Theater in San Francisco, starred Rinabeth Apostol as Afong Moy and Will Dao as Atung, Afong’s translator. Directed by Mina Morita, the play follows Afong after she is brought to America at age 14 to be displayed and to market “Chinese” goods and furniture.
The 90-minute play rests almost completely on Apostol’s riveting performance of Afong; she captivates the audience with her intensity and vivacity. Dao’s expressive face, evocative body language and heartbreaking lines round out the small cast.
The most striking and hard-hitting line is, in fact, spoken by Atung when he admonishes Afong mid-breakdown. “They are watching,” he warns. Indeed, someone is always watching.
I had the opportunity to interview Suh at length a few weeks before the show. Below is a transcript of our interview, edited for brevity.
VD: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned coming across a line about Afong Moy as you were doing a deep dive into Asian American history. What about her and that line sparked something in you and eventually became a play?
LS: Looking back, I think one of [the lines] was about the nature of performance, and the way in which just even hearing this capsule version of what her performance was like, feeling a lot of resonance with the kind of conversations that I often have with my Asian American theater artist friends. We’re constantly navigating the sense of it: anticipating the ways in which we’re perceived, what people expect from us, the ways in which what we actually have to say don’t line up with that.
But then, even thinking about the ways in which when we perform identity — when we’re performing a version of ourselves — how much is informed by what we’re performing? How much of that is there in spite of, or because of, what we imagine others might expect from us? Ultimately, how does that influence who we are, not just as performing artists, but as human beings and citizens?
It just felt so complicated that I had to ask myself that question. That’s what I meant when I would say things like, “I didn’t know if it was a play yet.” It started more as a question that I needed to interrogate myself about. Then, through the process of that interrogation, I realized, “Oh, is this a play?” And that eventually led to the point where I thought, “Okay, I see it now.” So, I’m kind of bouncing off of that.
Rinabeth Apostol as Afong Moy Credit: Adam Tolbert
VD: I know Asian representation is increasing, but it’s still not where most of us would like it to be. And I know it’s unfair to pin a whole people’s hopes and expectations on you. But how do you feel? Do you personally feel as if you’re the Chinese lady so to speak?
LS: Oh, wow. There’s two different questions there. That’s a very big question. I’ll do the first part first, which is the question of how do I feel about representation generally. As a theater maker — because theater is deeply intimate, and it’s very present tense, and it’s live — what I do is inherently less expansive in terms of the number of people that [it] can reach, than say, TV, or movies, or a medium that’s kind of a more portable mechanism.
But I think because it’s live, because it’s present tense, it also can have the potential to dig a little deeper, to cut a little quicker, and to last longer in a person’s memory of an experience. So I kind of feel like it’s my job as a theater maker to look at representation in a particular way. I’m very excited by the increasing representation in mass media because I think that that goes a very long way to changing perception and also reducing the obligation of any one representation to represent everybody.
In terms of what I do, it’s a little bit different than that. My obligation is to try and create something experiential for a person, for an audience member and, as I’ve been doing recently, to speak very directly to palatable cultural conversation, or question all the things that an Asian body on stage signifies.
So on that level, to the second part of the question — sometimes, I think without pretending that [there] can be any kind of equation. I would say that, absolutely. There are some times that I feel it’s why [Afong’s] story resonated with me: this feeling of being on display is resonant; this feeling of performing an expectation is resonant. But I can’t say that I equate myself with her, for a few reasons. One, she’s such an extreme manifestation of that. I can only begin to try and understand the magnitude of what that does [to] a person’s psyche, of what that does in terms of a person’s relationship to the outside world.
I say I can only begin to do that because it’s kind of what I’ve done here with this play: try to begin to understand or to grapple with the magnitude of that [experience]. One of the things about the play — I don’t want to give too much away — but I think the play is not a historical replication or an attempt to theatricalize actual history. It’s more a kind of conjuring, in its attempt at a conjuring of somebody who is inherently unknowable.
Because the moment which I realized, “Oh, this is a play” is the moment where I was doing all this research [on] her. There’s not a ton of research around her in general, and almost all of the research is at the height of her popularity. Then, at a certain point, even though we know she was still in the United States, even though we know she was still performing, [the research] dissipates and eventually evaporates.
The question is, “What happened to her? What happened after that? What were the later stages of her life like or even anything remotely relating to what her psychology was?” All of that stuff is completely absent. Coming to that absence, and recognizing that absence in the history, I felt, “What does it mean to make a play about that?” Until I realized, “Why is there an absence of that?”
The answer to that is obviously because nobody cared, because nobody took the time to investigate [her] psychology, “How did she feel? What did she think about all this?” At the point where history loses her — when she’s lost to the record — nobody cared to record it, nobody cared to follow, nobody cared to document.
To me, that absence and that lack of care became: “Oh, shit! That’s what the play’s about!” That’s why it’s a play. At that point, after doing all that investigation, sitting with that story and trying to imagine the magnitude of what she went through, I cared. I do. I really cared enough to want to tell people that they shouldn’t forget.
That’s the point at which I realized it’s a play. But it’s a play that acknowledges she’s unknowable. So if she’s unknowable, then the play can’t know her. I can’t know her, but we can try. And it’s the attempt. That is the endeavor — an attempt at wrestling with these absences in history. The things that we don’t know — the things that we’ve lost — in hopes of using that grappling, using that interrogation, to assess where we are now. Where we could, where we can and should try to be in the future.
VD: Awesome. You actually answered three other questions that I wanted to ask. I was going to ask you how it was a different type of pressure because you were representing a real person in history. And then discovering her, and you kind of —
LS: The responsibility part is very real. I feel that so palpably and I think it’s a valuable exercise to feel that responsibility. One of the things about working in the theater [is that] writing a play is different than writing fiction that’s designed to be read by a single person. I’m writing something that I’m expecting to give to an actor and say, “Hey, you should memorize this.”
Asking people to devote many, many hours to embodying it and living it and studying it so they can put themselves out there in front of an audience and perform it that creates a responsibility to do something that honors not just their time and the audience’s time, but honors the history.
All of that, at times, can feel like a lot. But for the most part, it’s really, really valuable. As a point of craft, the point is the task at hand. But the ultimate goal is to shine a light on something in hopes of creating a sense of empathy among the group of people sitting in the dark. The responsibility to honor history, I think, is a great way to start a conversation about empathy.
Will Dao as Atung Credit: Adam Tolbert
VD: So circling back to what you were talking about, I was very struck by what you said about how Afong is inherently unknowable. People could argue that, yes, back in the day, in the 1830s, there was no internet, there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram. Would you say that we are more knowable now or even less so because of the outward performance of what we do, as we are so aware of our performance?
LS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that’s part of the question I’m asking, too. What is knowable? It’s one of the things that this particular iteration of Afong Moy is very conscious of: the ways in which she’s presenting an image that she’s obligated to present.
That has a lot to do with those external things: her hair, her clothes, her body, her feet, the way she eats, the way she walks, the way she talks. The surface things are still the way in which we enter into or begin to know someone [and] to know each other. One of the things that she asks in this play is to just sit and take the time to really get to know someone.
I hope that the exercise of spending the 90 minutes of the play can serve as not just a bridge to knowing her in the ways that she’s potentially knowable, but as an exercise in practicing empathy, in general. Or thinking about the ways in which we might know each other, and how that could move past things that are available on the surface.
It’s come up in multiple different rehearsal processes, [like] the Marina Abramović exhibit that she did at MoMA 10 years back. People were invited to just sit down, and she would just choose to look at them, and they would look at her for a period of time, silently. And that’s come up a few times because we really don’t take that time — like not even a little bit of time. Just sit and be with each other without some other agenda.
I think it’s pretty special to have an opportunity to have people sit for 90 minutes with this character. I love her so much. I am very hopeful for the ways in which people might engage with her in that way.
VD: You mentioned the rehearsal process and you also talked about the responsibility to honor people’s time, in the people who are acting, directing, making the set, and in the end, the audience, as well as the subject matter. What is it like to create art that requires other people to realize?
LS: It’s the best. When I started, I was in college. I began thinking that I wanted to be a fiction writer. To me, writing was a very solitary exercise. It was kind of a private, internal thing. But when I got to college, like about halfway through, my sensibilities changed. I began to think a little more externally.
I went to high school in a community where I was the only student of color, actually one of two students of color in a graduating class of over 400. So there were aspects of it that were inevitably kind of isolating. That [isolation], like writing to me, had a different flavor than it did when I was in college and felt a little more community-minded. A little more [infused] with the urge of wanting to connect.
The act of dipping my toe into theater and dipping my toe into writing plays was such a perfect match for that impulse. To say, “Oh, I want to work on this with people,” [there’s] something community-minded about [that]. The amount of insight and emotional power that a piece of art [in the theater] can generate when you’re working on it with others who can bring their own selves to it, their own histories, their own humor and talent — it’s cumulative. It adds [up] and the end result is just better.
For me, again, I like to leave a lot of room in my plays for directors and actors and designers to personalize, especially around things that are really emotional. I tried to leave [and] just let the text [speak for] itself. An individual subtext can be added to it in ways that I can be surprised by, and moved by, in very different ways.
That’s just a great, great part of the process.
Director Mina Morita Credit: Jennifer Reiley
VD: You mentioned being surprised by different directors, and I was very curious about that. Because you wrote the stuff! How can you be surprised?
LS: [When] writing a play, there’s certain things that I don’t want to be prescriptive about. I’m thinking about some examples. There are two different types of examples.
I’ve written a play for young audiences, where there are these creatures. All these space creatures appear, and they start talking. If I really needed the space creatures to be a certain kind of space creature, then I would describe what they look like. But if I don’t need them to, maybe the designer who works on space creatures a lot will have better ideas than me about what these look like.
So I just said, space creatures appear and I don’t say what they look like. The designer thinks, “Well, I can decide what these space creatures look like.” Then, when I walk into the theater and see these initial designs, these mockups, these giant puppets. I’m like, “Wow, that’s so amazing!” I can be surprised by the visual manifestation [of] these space creatures that I initially conceptualized. But the process of seeing how other gifted artists can manifest that — it’s just so wonderful.
[Another example is when] the Atung character, who’s the other character in this play, [speaks] the line, “This has been my dream, or at least a part of my dream that I’m willing to tell you.” [It’s a] moment where you know that the character has a secret, but they’re not telling you.
The actor can decide what that secret is, and whether it’s a secret, whether it’s a sly secret, or whether it’s a deeply painful secret, and just what that secret does to that actor’s face and how they express that secret. It’s exciting to see different actors register that in their own way, or even, the ways in which they withhold or the ways in which they don’t withhold. It’s cool, you know? I get excited about seeing how that plays out with different people.
VD: What projects should we look out for in the future?
LS: My second play for young audiences is a play that is commissioned by Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. We’ve been working in various workshop forms on that play. And I’m still in the early stages of a play that’s commissioned by the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York. It’s one that I’ve been building toward in this deep dive into Asian American history. It’s a play that examines the legacy and the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act. And I’m very pleased to be coming to San Francisco next week for the preview process for “The Chinese Lady.” During that time, [I’ll] spend a little time at Angel Island as part of the research. I feel enormous responsibility around that [new] story, so I’m taking my time to really try to sit with that and let it come to me in the way that it needs to come to me.
Update: In September 2020, Lloyd Suh received the prestigious Horton Foote Prize for “The Chinese Lady.” The prize is given biennially to a piece of American theater for its excellence. Traditionally, the $50,000 reward has been split between two playwrights; this time, Suh was the sole winner.
Suh is also the writer of “Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery,” “American Hwangap,” “The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!,” and “Jesus in India.”