American sideshow

DCPA’s polished production of ‘The Chinese Lady’ asks audiences to sit with our problematic past

Sky Smith and Narea Kang in The Chinese Lady. Photo: Adams Visual Communications

You probably didn’t learn about Afong Moy in high school; playwright Lloyd Suh wants to change that. Inspired by the true story of Moy’s life, Suh’s The Chinese Lady — currently running at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts — is a dark, poetic portrait of America told from the perspective of the country’s first known female Chinese immigrant.

The play chronicles Moy’s life in the United States, where the 14-year-old girl is put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” For a fee, curious spectators watch her eat with chopsticks and gawk at her appearance. Her translator and confidant is Atung, an older Chinese American man who has been living stateside for decades. Together, they tour the U.S. as a traveling sideshow. But as the decades wear on, Moy’s celebrated act comes to define her in ways she finds difficult to escape.

Director Seema Sueko and set designer Alan E. Muraoka bring dynamism to this DCPA production running through Oct. 16. Literally framed in a picture frame, the curtain opens to reveal a set filled with replications of Chinese decorations. During scene transitions, stage managers methodically strip Moy’s touring act of its life — removing the set piece by piece until all that remains is her chair and the frame. 

Katherine Chou’s dramaturgical research deepens the play’s historical relevance. Before entering the theater, attendants walk past a lobby display that adds context to Denver’s infamous anti-Chinese riot of 1880. As Moy notes in the play, a white mob burned down Denver’s thriving Chinatown in what is now the LoDo District. Sueko worked with the playwright to add this local reference to the Denver production of the show in an attempt to ensure that such historical injustices aren’t covered up by the mists of time.

Meghan Anderson Doyle’s costumes gorgeously express the characters’ ages and changing status. The lighting and sound design, by Charles R. MacLeod and André Pluess, are used primarily in transitions and in Moy’s moments of distress. These technical elements help isolate key moments in the dialogue-heavy piece and communicate that Moy is stuck performing for an audience in this artificially designed world.

Actors Narea Kang and Sky Smith have strong chemistry together. Kang occasionally oversells the script’s jokes in her role as Moy; however, her performance strengthens as the character ages and the piece’s comedic moments fade into the rearview. Smith makes the most of his role as Moy’s translator, particularly when reenacting her visits with U.S. President Andrew Jackson and delivering gut-wrenching news that propels the play’s gripping conclusion to new heights.   

Consider checking out DCPA’s production of The Chinese Lady if you are interested in deconstructing America’s fraught history with the Asian American community, or simply want to support the endeavors of a talented director whose complicated vision is fully realized through the hard work of a skilled team of designers and actors.

ON STAGE: The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh. Various times, Sept. 9-Oct. 16, Singleton Theatre (Denver Center for the Performing Arts), 1400 Curtis St., Denver. Tickets: $40-56,