Exclusive Q&A: Lloyd Suh from Ma-Yi Theater Company and Public’s The Chinese Lady Exclusive Q&A

By  | 

Could you name the first Chinese woman to come to America? Could you even begin to imagine what life was like for her? In Llyod Suh’s critically acclaimed play, THE CHINESE LADY, we get to see what Afong Moy’s life was like once she immigrated to the United States. From February 23 to March 27, you can see her in person courtesy of Ma-Yi Theater Company and The Public Theater. They share:“In 1834, 16-year-old Afong Moy sailed into New York Harbor and was immediately put on display for a paying public who were mesmerized by her exotic ways and horrified by her tiny bound feet. As audiences follow Moy’s travels through America as a living exhibit for decades, THE CHINESE LADY shares her impressions of a young country struggling with how to define itself.” We had the absolute pleasure to speak with Suh on his masterpiece.

What do you hope audiences take away from your play, THE CHINESE LADY?
Part of what I set out to do with this play is to conjure a version of Afong Moy, who I’ve come to appreciate as an essential figure in history. Writing the play and working on it with my peers has been valuable to me in grappling with not just her legacy, but the legacy of how she was treated in the world. I suspect (and hope) that different audiences will take away different things, depending on where they’re coming from and what their personal experiences have been, and I welcome that. I hope people react to it from a sincere and personal place, and so it’s designed for people to respond in their own way. But the one thing I hope everyone receives is an appreciation for, and a careful consideration of, Afong Moy.

Are there any misconceptions you wish to break about Chinese culture?
As far as that goes, my more pressing concerns are assumptions about American culture, and perhaps more specifically Asian American culture. Afong Moy spent almost her entire life in America, and yet in her lifetime was exclusively perceived to be a Chinese curiosity for the white American gaze. This play is one among many plays I’ve been working on recently that explore forgotten or unexamined moments in Asian American history, and so there’s an aspect of it that aspires to an overdue remembrance, and an overdue examination, towards a broader picture of what we understand America to be.

I am always fascinated by immigrants’ stories of coming to America as my grandparents immigrated here from Cuba in the late 1950s. What about Afong Moy’s story struck you?
As soon as I heard about Afong Moy, I admit I was haunted. I wasn’t fully conscious of why at first, but the more I kept thinking about her and researching her experience, it became clear that there was something recognizable  – to me and to my peers in the performing arts – in terms of navigating the expectation of a performed identity. What is the impact of those expectations? And how do they eventually – perhaps subconsciously – end up influencing a person’s actual identity? Those were the initial questions. But I became even more haunted once I followed that thread. History stopped following Afong Moy. The historical record abandoned her. And so that initial resonance became something even more powerful once I realized I had to reckon with why she was forgotten. Many of the reasons for her abandonment are very much still with us.

There are no records of Moy after 1850, what do you think became of her?
I realize this might sound grandiose, but it’s my fervent hope that this question can become untrue, that while there are no records of her between 1850 and now, that she might receive the consideration she deserves beyond that. In terms of what became of her, I’d like to think there’s more to come.

What has been your experience working with The Public?
It’s a genuine honor to be working at the Public Theater. It’s humbling to think about the history of this building, and about how so many of our most important writers did crucial work here. It’s very meaningful to me, to have this play in conversation with that history.

How has Ma-Yi Theater Company supported your career and this production?
Ma-Yi has been my primary artistic home for almost two decades now, so the relationship between my work and the Ma-Yi community at this point feels basically inextricable. They commissioned this play, and it was developed and produced through Ma-Yi programming; I’ve worked with Ralph B. Peña on several of my plays, so there’s a long and rich conversation that we’ve been engaged in together. I can’t overstate how valuable all of that is. Writers can’t do raw, risky, vulnerable work when they don’t feel like they’re in a safe environment, or if they’re worried about being misunderstood. Ma-Yi has allowed me, over the course of many years, to take risks and attempt things I otherwise wouldn’t.

What advice would you give to young playwrights?
The most exciting thing to me about the state of playwriting today is that I’ve been able to witness so many young writers pushing the limits of the form in exciting ways. There’s an ecology of writers who I see wrestling to create new models, to contain what they want to say, instead of the other way around. So I suppose the best advice I can give young playwrights is to not listen to me. Do your own thing.

What do you think the future of live theatre will look like in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
It makes me dizzy to try and predict. I struggle to form opinions on the future of humanity in the midst of all of this, so I definitely don’t trust myself to be articulate about the future of theater. But I will say that having been in a few different rehearsal and production rooms since we’ve slowly started to come back has felt really powerful, and that it feels like the value of gathering, sharing space, feeling the present-tense and live in-person energy of a company and audience in conversation, is growing stronger rather than weaker.

Are you currently working on any new projects?
Yes, Bina’s Six Apples, which is currently in production at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, will go into production at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in March. And I have a few other new plays currently in development, that are each in their own way connected to similar acts of remembering and considering history, with aspiration towards whatever comes next.

Get your tickets HERE.