Review: The Milwaukee Rep’s ‘The Chinese Lady’ Explores Cultural Identity and Assimilation

The disturbing story of Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant to the U.S.

Playwright Lloyd Suh’s drama The Chinese Lady follows the legacy of Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant brought to America in the 1830s, who was treated as an exotic exhibit at traveling museums.

More than a historical drama, however, the production explores questions of cultural and racial identity and assimilation, the nature of curiosity and the often exploitative (and sexist) nature of show business and unrealistic beauty standards for women. For example, foot binding, an excruciatingly painful Chinese ritual for young women, is compared with American women wearing suffocating corsets, all in the name of upholding a male notion of femininity.

Directed by May Adrales (Animal Farm, In The Heights) and staged in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s intimate Stiemke Studio (which seats 205), The Chinese Lady features a miniscule, yet incredibly effective cast of two.

Both gifted actors, Lisa Helmi Johanson and Jon Norman Schneider kept their audience transfixed with emotionally engaging monologues at Friday night’s performance.

As Moy, a young woman born into Chinese nobility, Johanson (Anything Goes, Avenue Q) displayed remarkable dramatic range, vacillating between unbridled enthusiasm for all things and places American, an idealistic look at United States foreign policy and extreme despair. Despite crushing disappointments, Moy remains resolute and determined to soldier on.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Afong Moy. Submitted photo

Atung, Moy’s translator (Schneider, A Christmas Carol, Henry VI), is a pragmatic character on the surface. Although no-nonsense and restrained, and deemed “irrelevant” by Moy, Atung is fiercely protective of her, and often daydreams of a more fulfilling life. Schneider’s poker face was perfectly paired with Johanson’s animated gestures. Both actors displayed good comedic timing, playfully bickering and delivering a handful of witty one-liners, but their deep respect and tenderness for one another never failed to shine through.

Scenic designer Collette Pollard captured the look and feel of a museum exhibit with her single set, consisting of a painted wooden box-like structure with red drapes. In an exciting moment, the drapes are pulled back with a rope, revealing a room attractively decorated with Chinese paintings, pottery and furniture. Costume designer Melissa Ng’s (Lettie, The Carpenter) elegant and authentic-looking costumes — flowing satin tunics trimmed with floral designs for Moy and gray utilitarian clothing for Atung — represent class distinction.

Jon Norman Schneider as Atung. Submitted photo

Lighting designer Noele Stollmack (Elektra, Desert of Roses) and sound designer Andre J. Pluess (The Clean House, Macbeth) gave the production added dramatic weight, subtly illuminating characters during monologues and incorporating sound effects like a train headed for the West Coast rumbling along.

Go See It: The Chinese Lady at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio; through March 24. Talk backs with the cast and artistic team will be held February 21, February 28, March 7 and March 14, following the show’s 8 p.m. performances.