Saturday, July 20, 2024

‘My most important work to date’: Local actor brings to life ‘The Chinese Lady’

“This is the deepest dive I’ve ever made into a character,” Mirla Criste told Port City Daily ahead of the opening of “The Chinese Lady,” the latest production by Big Dawg Productions. (Photo by James Bowling)

WILMINGTON — Looking to the past helps to inform a better, hopeful future. 

READ MORE: In photos: Sierra Ferrell makes GLA debut

At least that’s the goal for Big Dawg’s latest production, “The Chinese Lady,” a 2018 play written by Lloyd Suh. It makes its Wilmington debut June 8 at the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater in Thalian Hall.

The 90-minute play consists of two people: Afong Moy, performed by Mirla Criste, and her translator Atung, acted by Chad Hsu.

“This is the deepest dive I’ve ever made into a character,” Criste told Port City Daily on a phone call last week. She also dubbed it her “most important” work to date. 

A local choreographer, dancer and actor, Criste has performed on local stages for years as part of Dance-a-lorus and in plays, including 2021’s “The Savannah Sipping Society.” 

“This play is not just a narration of history, it really feels quite a bit like we are inside Afong Moy’s mind,” she said.

Moy has been reported as the first Chinese lady to come to the United States in 1834 at the age of 14. She traveled from her hometown of Guangzhou to New York City, brought in by traders Francis and Nathaniel Carnes, who utilized her as a display of sorts to sell ornate objects — furniture, silks, paintings, ceramics — from the Far East. 

“To white women, specifically,” Criste said. 

While Moy thought she was traveling to America to share her culture with western society, she was written about in newspapers mainly as a side show. Advertisements of the time, seen in Philadelphia’s American Sentinel, marketed her as: “Unprecedented novelty! The Chinese Lady, Afong Moy!”

She would demonstrate how to eat with chopsticks and go through other cultural rituals, such as tea time. The public was most fascinated by her 4-and-a-half-inch feet. An advertisement claimed she “will occasionally walk before the company,” to put emphasis on the limbs’ binding.

While Americans wanted to marvel at it, gaping over her bound feet was the antithesis of its meaning in Chinese culture.

“Foot-binding that the upper-class Chinese would engage in for their daughters was thought to make women and young girls seem more elevated in social status and refined culturally,” Criste said.

Through a 17-year-old interpreter, Atung, audiences see how those who visited her exhibitions interacted with Moy.

Rather than host auditions, Steve Vernon, Big Dawg’s artistic director, reached out to Criste and Hsu, two local Asian-American actors, to bring the characters to life. He said, aside from their combined talents, he recognized roles for Asian actors are few and far between.

“I don’t want it to sound like ‘being woke,’ but the fact remains that there are so many opportunities that some of us take for granted,” Vernon said. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an actor of a certain ethnicity, to have a resume longer than many actors, yet to have never been afforded the opportunity to play a character that reflected their heritage. What a crime … we miss out by not having the chance to experience what those actors can create when given the space.” 

Part of the intrigue of the play comes from how Moy and Atung view her job.

“Afong thought she was being an ambassador and didn’t realize that, really, she was being used as a live mannequin,” Criste said.

Her interpreter could see her exploitation more clearly, fully understanding the nuances of both the Chinese and English languages. Yet, he never lost his sense of dedication to Moy.

“He finds a way to find humor, albeit sarcastic at times, in his role,” Chad said of his character. 

The actor’s wife, Terri Hsu, is making her directorial debut in “The Chinese Lady.” She said her husband’s and Criste’s connection is rooted in “sibling-like banter,” oftentimes comical and endearing.

“I find that I relate to many of the feelings that Atung has throughout this play,” Chad said. “Mostly, Atung reminds me a lot of my grandfather and the way that he raised me: to be respectful, to protect me from all things, while remaining a constant to those for whom he cared.”

A gamut of emotions rises from the character — anger, love, apathy, jealousy, gratitude — something Chad said gives more breadth to the stories and experiences his grandparents and great-grandparents told him about in youth.

“Those feelings invoke thoughts about how we, as individuals, contribute to the human experience,” Chad said.

Mirla Criste and Chris Hsu in “The Chinese Lady,” opening this week at Thalian Hall. (Photo by James Bowling)

Criste’s dialogue makes up 90% of the play, with Chad joining her through all of act one and some of act two. That was the most daunting task, she said: “memorization.” But the content was gripping. 

Criste researched the book “The Chinese Lady,” written by National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution curator emeritus Nancy Davis, and watched video conversations playwright Suh had with scholars to get the full context.

Moy traveled across multiple states with the Carne brothers before she was sold to become a side show in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The young Chinese immigrant met President Andrew Jackson in 1835, who also regarded her as a curiosity.

“The scene is beautifully acted,” Terri said, “and the result may not be what you expect. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.”

The play is set in one room — a box of sorts, as if it’s a diorama people are looking into. The smaller Ruth and Bucky Stein stage is an apropos parallel to Moy being put into a compact room full of objects to be gawked at.

The set was designed by Terry Collins, with Stephanie Scheu Aman behind the costuming that “enhances every mood of the show,” Terri said. She indicated lighting, too, was integral to the “varying emotional degrees” the play works through.

The show utilizes music and visual projections as it moves into the 1840s; after 17 years in the public eye, Moy retreated as a live model. There were some drawings and illustrations of her from that era, but by the 1850s her records disappeared. 

Suh’s play is a reimagining of what happened. The first part takes on Moy’s emigration and the exhibitions, while the second surmises her life after the exhibitions ended. 

“[Nancy Davis] found some little tidbits in her research,” Criste explained. “In one case, she found out that Afong Moy had been put in a poor house for eight years by whoever her guardians were at the time. I guess, when the exhibitions stopped being interesting or lost an audience, she was kind of passed on.”

The play incites laughter, sadness, and shame but most of all optimism — despite pointing to xenophobic behaviors Americans have exhibited against Asian people. 

“Works like ‘The Chinese Lady’ tell another side of history that is often overlooked,” the director said.

Moy’s life traces back the bigoted history by almost 200 years. The 1840s brought with it the drive for Manifest Destiny, when some believed it was God’s will to expand democracy and capitalism across the North American continent and into the American West. This is touched on in the script, as is the brutality faced by many Chinese men, who arrived to work on the railroads.

“There are few stories that explore some of the historic occurrences that resulted in the marginalization of Chinese people in America,” Terri added. “Events in our recent history show that this is still occurring.”

The time of the play couldn’t be more relevant as Covid-19 ushered in a surge of Asian hate, as many blamed the country and its people for the virus’ worldwide spread. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism tracked anti-Asian hate crime increasing by 339% between 2020 and 2021. 

“The Chinese Lady” also brushes on Congress’ approval of the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting immigration for a decade, starting in the 1880s, and prolonged thereafter. Moy was in her 60s by that time, recognizing the credulous trap in which she had become entangled. 

“But the play doesn’t want to just leave it at that,” Criste said. “It wants to suss it out, analyze it, examine it, investigate what could be, what we could learn from those events, what we could learn for the present moment, and what we could learn for a hopeful future.”

Criste said Moy is never presented as someone particularly “scolding,” something Vernon agrees with. Rather, she is present, lively, even lyrical and poetic. Criste is leaning into her personal love of dance to bring grace to Moy.

“I’ve relied tremendously on recordings of Qing Dynasty dance, which works perfectly for this character,” Criste said.

Vernon assured the show provides viewers a peek of America through a different lens. 

“Not negative,” he clarified, “just one that proves how universal our wants and needs and dreams actually are. You won’t leave a performance of this play feeling like you have been lectured, but you will feel like you have been fed a very wonderful feast.”

“The Chinese Lady” opens Thursday and runs through June 18 — Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. Tickets are $34. The Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater is located on the second floor of Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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