If you don’t believe, at the opening of Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady,” that Afong Moy is 14 years old, that’s OK. You also won’t believe, toward the end, that she’s 82, nor are you expected to.
That’s because this Magic Theatre world premiere is a finely wrought metatheatrical play.
The actors explain that they are not actually Afong, who in reality was the first Chinese woman, in 1834, to enter the United States and was displayed to the public as an exotic specimen (and ultimately, at least in Suh’s imaginative rendering, in a P.T. Barnum sideshow), and Atung, her older, male handler.
Rather, they are re-enacting scenes from their years as a traveling exhibit. As they speak colloquial English, we are privy to their personal interactions and inner thoughts.
Afong is (as, historically, she was, according to the very little that’s known) enclosed in a pagoda-like pavilion (a detailed little set by Jacquelyn Scott) in which she daintily demonstrates to the crowds how she eats (with chopsticks!), walks (on bound feet!), pours tea and so on. Atung translates in broken English.
Along the way, we watch Afong (in Rinabeth Apostol’s carefully calibrated performance, as directed by the excellent Mina Morita) slowly mature. She eventually understands English, and strange American ways, and comes to envision her role in life as a cross-cultural peacemaker. And we listen to Atung’s own deepest, conflicted emotions, powerfully expressed by William Dao.
As affecting as it is to be drawn into the plight of these two characters, Suh has more to reveal: American and European history in relation to the East (the Opium Wars, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, etc.); the historical and cultural significance of Chinese tea; and, most importantly, how America has always treated the “other” — right up to today.
In one pivotal scene based on historical fact, Afong meets Andrew Jackson, with Dao playing both the president and himself as translator, to hilarious and cringe-worthy effect.
Suh wants more than to entertain and move us with this fascinating, unsettling story of two characters trapped in our shameful history.
But he doesn’t quite trust the audience to get it. He’s inserted too much didactic, educational material along the way, and, in the final scene, becomes preachy, almost denying us our feelings.
But up until then “The Chinese Lady” is exquisite.
The Chinese Lady
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Fort Mason, Building D, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 3
Tickets: $15 to $75
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org