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Watch Her Story Unfold

Director Jess McLeod delivers artistic insight about Afong Moy and the timely significance of The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh.

Can you talk about the idea of performance and how it applies both to the script and to your vision for it?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away (directors don’t like to reveal their tricks!), but we’re having a lot of fun playing with the fact that Asian American women are always performing. There are roles we’re expected to play, social dynamics we’re expected to fall into and qualities we’re assumed to possess. Whether you’re Afong Moy in 1834 or me, an Asian American woman walking down the street in 2023, we’re forced to be in conversation with Asian stereotypes because we’ve been silenced and kept from the public eye — other than stories about Asian women written by white men with their own agendas. We haven’t been out there in any real way consistently, and with the help of the Playhouse’s amazing scenic and prop shop (okay, there’s a hint!), we drop the audience into reckoning with that.

Sami Ma (Afong Moy) and Albert Park (Atung) in The Chinese Lady. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

What do you think Playhouse audiences should know before seeing the play?
Nothing. Come as you are, with everything you know and don’t know.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this production? 
A better understanding, historical and emotional, of the lived experience of Asian American women. Asians and Asian Americans are constantly pegged as “perpetual foreigners.” First, being born somewhere other than America should be no cause for harassment and second, you can be born in America, speak only English and still be met on a daily basis with hostile calls to “go back to your country.” The social message here has always been loud and clear: Asians are dangerous and we don’t belong — and in recent years, we’re to blame for COVID, which is ridiculous, false and incredibly dangerous, especially in today’s violent climate. Why don’t we belong? And if this is where I’m from, where does that leave me? Where should I go?

The twin of the “perpetual foreigner” myth is the myth of the “model minority,” the idea or expectation that all Asians are or should be  smart, successful, compliant, hard-working, high-achieving. It all sounds “positive,” but  every racial stereotype is still a cage, a myth that holds white supremacy — the ultimate myth — in place. So we’re either “yellow peril” or, if we do whatever American authorities tell us to do, “teacher’s pet.” And you have to wonder: What does thinking of Asians as “Others” really do for whoever thinks of us that way?

And, of course, Asian and Asian American women also have a long history of being objectified and sexualized by all men but especially white men. What/who does that serve? Six Asian American women were slaughtered in Atlanta in 2021 by a young  white male gunman who blamed them for his own “uncontrollable sexual desire.” Ideas about us need to change. We are literally under attack. 

It’s time to face how and why these myths and stereotypes were born. I hope audiences will face these things with us so we can all start to let them go.

Sami Ma (Afong Moy) in The Chinese Lady. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

What are some other plays and who are some other playwrights that are exciting you right now?
It’s an exciting era for playwrights and for theatre. I tend to like plays that drop you into the deep end and help you swim back up to the top, enlightened and refreshed and laughing or crying or both. Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo (which just had a too-brief but brilliant Broadway run) is a brilliant black comedy that will slap you awake. Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself (currently playing off-Broadway) is an incredible play about a group of college students who think they know it all but are deeply confused about sex and consent. And I think Jay Adana, who wrote The Jordan & Avery Show, a dynamic two-hander about the ups and downs of a complicated friendship (i.e. every friendship), is the next Jonathan Larson — or the first Jay Adana!

The Chinese Lady runs through April 30 in the Rosenthal Shelterhouse.