"The Chinese Lady" at Open Eye Theatre

Production photo from The Chinese Lady

If Open Eye Theatre's production of the new play The Chinese Lady is any indication, 2023-2024 is going to be a stellar season of #TCTheater. Written by Lloyd Suh, whose play Bina's Six Apples was seen at the Children's Theater last year, The Chinese Lady is a fictionalized account of the first Chinese woman in America. Known as Afong Moy, she was brought to New York City in 1834 at the age of 14 by a couple of traders in Chinese goods and put on display amongst said goods, in order to increase desire to buy the goods. History lost track of the real Afong Moy after about 15 years, but the playwright imagines her growing old in America, and ties her story to the stories of Chinese Americans, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and violence against Asian Americans throughout the past few centuries. Brilliantly told in 80 minutes, the play is funny, charming, fascinating, devastating, and ultimately hopeful. With excellent performances and gorgeous design, The Chinese Lady is the first must-see of the season (continuing through September 24, click here for info and tickets).

2023 is turning out to be the year of Katie Bradley.

The play is structured as a series of performances by Afong Moy, in a setting that couldn't be more perfect - a dingy red velvet curtain that's swept aside to reveal Afong arrayed in gorgeous traditional clothing sitting amongst Chinese vases, figures, and other artifacts, all displayed in rich red and deep wood surroundings (costume design by Matt LeFebvre, set and prop design by Joel Sass). Afong is accompanied by her translator Atung, whom she dismisses as irrelevant to her story, and who at first sits quietly on the side, until he gets a chance to tell his story too. Afong speaks directly to the audience in a tongue and cheek way, full of youthful enthusiasm for everything she's experiencing. After each performance, which includes walking on her tiny bound feet, eating with chopsticks, and performing a traditional tea ceremony, the curtain closes and reopens again a few, or many, years later. The performance is repeated, but things have changed, as Afong becomes less of a performance and more of a person. Her story is an allegory for America's complicated history with immigration and immigrants, particularly Chinese immigrants, and in the end emphasizes the humanity of people who just want to be seen and known.

Brilliantly told in 80 minutes, the play is funny, charming, fascinating, devastating, and ultimately hopeful.

2023 is turning out to be the year of Katie Bradley. She's been a consistently strong performer over the last decade or so, but she's been a part of some particularly memorable shows this year. She began the year as a member of the ensemble of Ten Thousand Things' Mlima's Tale, following the journey of an elephant killed for its tusks, then was one of the many murder suspects in the Guthrie's star-studded Murder on the Orient Express, followed quickly by Theater Mu's Kung Fu Zombies Saga, in which she was a kung-fu fighting cannibal. A diverse array of great performances, but her best performance this year, and perhaps to date, is her performance as Afong Moy. She begins the show speaking in a high girlish voice, with an attitude to match, looking and sounding very much like the little doll that Afong was treated as. But as the years pass, she gradually drops the voice affectations, showing us cracks in the perfect veneer, eventually becoming the person behind the performance and leading us through the decades and into the present. In addition to this emotionally resonant performance, she also performs the most precise hand movements and gentle choreography as Afong demonstrates her culture, or what Americans want to see of it (choreography by Dr. Hui Wilcox).

#TCTheater actor Eric Sharp is making his directorial debut here and does a wonderful job with this script that's as funny as it is profound, striking just the right balance in tone. In the smaller but far from irrelevant role of Atung, Michael Sung Ho is a delight, saying much with few words as he reacts to Afong's story, and getting emotional in telling his own story. Michael and Katie have a fun, almost sibling-like chemistry as Afong and Atung are often at odds, but also each other's only friend.

There's a lot going on here in this seemingly simple little play that concisely tells this very specific and odd story, relating it to the larger world and our present reality. Everything is thoughtfully done by the team at Open Eye Theatre, with great attention to detail (even with the tokens we pay to see the performance). The new #TCTheater season is already off to a great start, with Open Eye Theater seeing the bar high.

This article originally appeared on Cherry and Spoon, a Minneapolis/St. Paul theater blog since 2010. Read more reviews of #TCTheater at https://cherryandspoon.com and follow on social media @cherryandspoon.

Production photos by Nicole Neri 

Headshot of Jill Schafer
Jill Schafer

Theater blogger since 2010 and member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers group, Jill runs the blog Cherry and Spoon.