March 26, 2022

Paying Proper Respect to "The Chinese Lady"

There are so many things to admire about Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady which is currently running at The Public Theater through April 10.  And here are just a few of them.

ADMIRATION #1: The Chinese Lady tells a fresh story.  A co-production of The Barrington Stage and Ma-Yi Theater companies, this two-hander is inspired by the life of Afong Moy, who is believed to have been the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. back in 1834, and it puts the spotlight on a part of American history that has too long been overlooked.

Fewer than 300 Chinese were living in the U.S. when the importer brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne worked out a deal with Moy’s father that allowed them to bring the 14-year-old to New York because they thought her presence would help promote the Asian goods they were trying to sell to the public.  

They displayed her in a room decorated with Chinese objects and charged people to watch as she sat dressed in traditional garments, ate with chopsticks, performed a tea ceremony and—the real crowd-pleaser—took small steps around the room on feet that had been traditionally bound to produce the tiny appendages that were then considered objects of beauty in China. 

ADMIRATION #2: The Chinese Lady tells a story we really need to hear right now. Suh slyly turns Moy’s 30-year career as an object of exoticism into a poignant meditation on how Asian people, particularly Asian woman, have been othered in this country from the very beginning of their time here.  

He, director Ralph B. Peña and video projection director Shawn Duan also insert other bits of Chinese-American history throughout this 90-minute production, reminding theatergoers of—or maybe introducing them to—the discriminatory acts that were committed against the Chinese, ranging from lynchings and massacres to the enactment of laws that limited their immigration into this country until as recently as the 1960s (click here for more of that history). 

This is all sadly relevant right now because this month marks the first anniversary of the Atlanta shootings in which a young white man targeted salons run by Asian woman and killed six of them. 

In fact, between March 2020 (when former President Trump started calling the coronavirus “the China virus”) and December 2021, more than 10,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were reported and 70% of them were directed at women, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate (click here to read more about that). 

And the violence hasn’t stopped. In January an Asian woman named Michelle Alyssa Go was killed when she was pushed in front of a train at the Times Square subway station. Earlier this month another white man conducted a scary two-hour spree in which he randomly assaulted eight Asian women in the city. And even during previews of The Chinese Lady, an Asian dancer was assaulted on his way to perform at the Public (click here for more on all of that).

ADMIRATION #3: The Chinese Lady tells a highly entertaining story. Despite the shameful legacy of past and current abuse, Suh generously leavens his play with humor, much of it delivered by the show’s second character Atung, who serves as Moy’s attendant, interpreter and more. 

Both Daniel K. Isaac who plays Atung (click here to read a profile about him) and Shannon Tyo who plays Moy have to walk a tightrope as they balance their performances between acknowledging the stereotypes that have long been assigned to characters like theirs and revealing the complex people who have always existed behind those facades. 

The final scenes of the play go on a bit too long but to say that these two excellent actors do an admirable job would be a gross understatement.

ADMIRATION #4: The Chinese Lady is being told to an audience that really should hear this story. One of the things I most admire about this show is that it is being done at the Public. 

Ma-Yi, a company dedicated to promoting new works by Asian-American playwrights, first produced The Chinese Lady in 2018 and although it earned great reviews from those who saw it, that production isn’t even listed in the database of off-Broadway shows run by the Lortel Foundation. 

I’m not badmouthing the foundation because I didn’t go see the show back then either. It’s too easy—even for people like me who see lots of stuff and like to think of ourselves as being inclusive—to overlook shows by small companies, particularly small ethnically-specific companies. 

Ma-Yi has been around since 1989 and yet I can count the previous Ma-Yi productions I’ve seen on one hand.  And I don’t even need that hand to count the Repertorio Español productions I’ve seen because I haven’t seen any. 

I’m not proud of this track record but I am grateful that the Public is providing a chance for people like me to see the kind of excellent work that we’ve been missing out on. The Chinese Lady's run is now completely sold out but if this is an example of the Ma-Yi’s work, we should all keep an eye out for what it does in the future.

March 12, 2022

"This Space Between Us" Needs More Filling

There are so many themes—cultural assimilation, filial responsibility, sibling rivalry, climate change, animal cruelty, homophobia—packed into This Space Between Us that this new dramedy, which opened this week in a Keen Company production at Theatre Row, could be interpreted as about almost anything you want it to be about.  Which isn’t actually a good thing.

At the center of it all is a 34-year-old guy named Jamie. He’s a successful corporate lawyer. He has a loving marriage with his magazine editor husband Ted. His working-class Cuban-American dad and Anglo mom adore him.  As do his Asian-American BFF Gillian and his mother’s sister Pat who is a nun.  

And yet, Jamie isn’t happy.  He thinks he should be doing more to make the world a better place and so in the opening scene he announces that he’s quitting his job and going to work for a nonprofit that does good work in Africa. No one in his relationship bubble, except maybe his nun aunt, thinks this is a good idea and they spend the rest of the play acting out on their concerns.

I think playwright Peter Gil-Sheridan wants to look at what it means to be a good person in these complicated times in which we live. And that raises all kinds of questions since most of us like to think of ourselves as good people. 

Among those questions is whether it's O.K. to use outdated language as Jamie’s father does when referring to Gillian or Ted as long as his heart is in the right place and his own circle of friends is diverse.  Or if Ted’s sustainability-driven veganism makes up for the blatant materialism of his buying things like Cartier watches. 

And where does the white savior complex fit into all of this, especially when the people purportedly being saved engage in bad behavior of their own?

Unfortunately, Gil-Sheridan doesn’t spend much time pondering any of this. Instead, he peppers his script with quips and wisecracks and other distractions like an extended hospital scene in which Ted’s HIV status is revealed and then never referred to again.

The cast is game but director Jonathan Silverstein doesn’t offer themor us in the audiencemuch help. Most of his energy seems to have gone into choreographing the busy scene changes in which the actors cart furniture on and off stage to establish the various locales including a race track, Jamie and Ted’s living room, Jamie’s office and, of course, that hospital room. 

My blogger friend Jonathan Mandell said in his review that the show was "more well-meaning than well-put together" (click here to read his full review) and I sadly agree with him. Afterall, as the show itself says, to create something good in the world you need more than good intentions.  

March 5, 2022

"sandblasted" Lacks True Grit

The playwright Charly Evon Simpson had written a bunch of stuff before she got her breakthrough three years ago with Behind the Sheet, a devastating drama about how the father of American gynecology callously conducted experiments on enslaved black women to try out his pioneering techniques, many of which are still used today. 

The play earned Simpson the kind of attention all young playwrights yearn for and yet when I interviewed her for my podcast "Stagecraft" (click here to listen to that) she admitted to being uneasy about profiting from the pain of black people. So I totally get why her new play sandblasted, which opened in a WP Theatre production at the Vineyard this week, aimed to be a comedy.  But, I’m sad to say, when I saw it, I found too little to laugh about. 

Sandblasted is a self-consciously absurdist piece whose premise is rooted in the idea that black women are literally falling apart. Within the first 10 minutes, the arm of one of its characters falls off. This metaphorical amputation is supposed to be simultaneously shocking and funny.  And it kind of is but then Simpson doesn’t seem to know what to do with it after that.

The temporarily one-armed woman (she finds a way to stick it back on) is Odessa who is at a wellness retreat where she meets and testily bonds with Angela, who is also seeking a way to deal with the mysterious malady that is besetting black women. The place is owned by Adah, an older black woman who has become an Oprah-like celebrity guru because she appears to be effortlessly holding on to her body parts. 

Now here's where I should give you some sense of the play’s narrative or moral but I can’t because there really isn’t one. Although Simpson clearly wants to comment on the crippling pressures that racism and sexism put on contemporary black women, she keeps digging around in the absurdist toolkit and in the process diminishes the pain those stresses can cause.  

So instead of a clear storyline, we get lots of unnecessary—and confusing—time shifting, a few long-winded monologues and a couple of overt nods to Samuel Beckett. Sandblasted opens with the women buried in sand (hello Happy Days) and most of the rest of it involves their waiting around for something to come and cure their existential ills (hey there Waiting for Godot).

I’ll confess that absurdist plays aren’t really my cup of tea. But I have enjoyed—and sometimes have been transported by—the works of Beckett and Edward Albee and Eugéne Ionesco. What distinguished their plays for me is that those playwrights set a clear theatrical grammar for their work and then spun poetry within it. 

Simpson is a talented, and even poetic, writer but her grammar is loosey-goosey.  Angela and Odessa too easily shift between determination and resignation. Angela's brother appears out of nowhere and then vanishes right back into it. 

And the play gives me no idea of whether I should regard Adah as a shaman or a charlatan. Even the self-consciously lower-cased “s” of its title seems to be straining for a post-modern relevance that the play can’t figure out how to develop.

That places a lot of burden on the director Summer L. Williams and her actors.  And they work hard to carry it. Maybe a little too hard. 

Marinda Anderson who plays Odessa and Brittany Bellizeare who plays Angela are engaging performers but, given such opaque characters, they tend to fall back on the sassiness that has become shorthand for the way black women are supposed to interact with the world but that I, a black woman, so seldom use in real life and am tired of seeing on stages. 

Most of the critical praise has been directed at Rolonda Watts, a longtime TV news personality here in New York who plays Adah. She, too, works hard (and looks great) and she gives the show some grace notes, particularly at the end.  Alas, I'm just not convinced it earns them.