In their study of human behavior, ethologists have concluded certain facts about our species. One is curiosity.
“In man, curiosity remains a prominent art pf behavior throughout life/ thus we can properly be called creatures of curiosity, and our curiosity maybe interpreted as a persistent juvenile characteristic. Indeed, we seek novelty even into our old age. We read newspaper accounts of vents that do not concern us at all, learn about foreign countries and new research findings, visit museums and travel as tourists to find new insights and experiences. Entire areas of our economies are based on our curiosity, and one of the most severe punishments that can be meted out consist of removing or restricting those possibilities for satisfying our curiosity e.g., by imprisonment.”[i]
We tend to be most curious about other people, especially those who look or sound different from us. The new kid in elementary school has an immediate fascination. The program of inviting foreign exchange students to our high schools continues the exploration and understanding of differences among human beings.
The exploration of the world was motivated, in part by curiosity. The discovery of people who looked very different from us, sounded very different from us, and behaved very different fr0m us, gave rise to at least, suspicion, and at worst, violence.
The fear of strangers, a trait designed to facilitate human safety, xenophobia – complicates the matter. “Xenophobia is an important component of the human behavioral repertoire. It is a phylogenetic adaptation, but one that can be modified strongly through learning.”[ii]
God, attempting to educate his human creations, has repeatedly weighed in on appropriate behavior.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”[iii]
Stories can either accentuate or calm our curiosity and fears. Some of the earliest fictional accounts I recall of the contact between Europeans and non-Europeans came through kids’ television, like Ramar of the Jungle, The Adventures of Ganga Ram, and movies like Abbot and Costello’s Africa Screams, John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Elementary school field trips to the Rochester Museum and Science Center with their large glass cases filled with life-sized wax Seneca Indians going about their everyday activities. Those exhibit cases were the descendants of the kind of room which housed the first Chinese lady to arrive in America, Afong Moy (1815-? ), a century earlier.
From all this, we learned that not all people, regardless of ethnic origin, are as courteous as the English when they received Pocahontas.
Lloyd Shu’s short play The Chinese Lady is based on the true story of Afong Moy who, being curious as to America and Americans, and hearing that the Americans were curious about China and the Chinese contracted to be displayed as a novelty, in various American cities, ostensibly to bring greater understanding of the Chinese people to Americans. She thus became the first Chinese person in America. Unfortunately for Miss Moy, a combination of greedy entrepreneurs and changing Immigration law, doomed the would-be ambassador of human respect to a sad life of exile in American until she vanished without a trace.
Shu’s play suggests William Luce’s Belle of Amherst (1976), a play about Emily Dickinson – another 19th Century curiosity- a female poet, in both structure and content. Shu’s drama proceeds through a series of tableaux vivants, each introduced by her translator and curator, Atung. Each vignette shows the mental and spiritual deterioration of both Afong Moy and Atung as they repeat the routines without end, and as each small hope for change or release is dashed.
The style is almost Pirandellian. The characters acknowledge that actors play them, and the actors acknowledge that they are not the characters. Both actors and characters occasionally engage in discussion of the nature of performance, interpretation, and translation. Ultimately the play is a plea for finding the humanity in other people as the basis for empathy, rather than dismissing others as mere momentary diversions in the theater of one’s life.
Director Helen Young begins her production before the house lights dim, with the actress playing Afong Moy, in her street clothes, leaning against the edge of the picture frame stage. The reason for this becomes clear as the playwright maintains that the reality of Afong Moy transcended time and place; she lives even into the year 2020. As she leans, Mi Kang, the talented actress assigned the role of Afong Moy, seems to be attempting to connect with individual members of the audience in ways more meaningful than those which the historical Afong Moy found as she travelled across the country.
From vignette to vignette Ms. Kang subtly shows the heroine’s slide into depression, loneliness, and despair, as she ages along with the ever-faithful assistant Atung, played with panache by the fine actor Glenn Obrero.
All of the production elements reach the level of exquisite. Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco’s fashioned a detailed and historically correct framed room, filled with the lovely selected properties and furniture pieces assembled by properties designer Rowan Doe. Sound designers Forrest Gregor and Andre Pluess provide an evocative ambient atmosphere which transcends any particular time or place, while John Culbert’s lighting design facilitates the passing of time as the characters age, and visually suggests both the oppressive nature of the environment and the beatific nature of Afong Moy’s final incarnation.
TimeLine Theatre Company’s The Chinese Lady is a living, breathing confirmation of the Dutch artist Gerda van de Windt’s belief that,
“Artistic creativity is the vehicle for the transformation of the sorrows of the world into beauty, truth, and art, by making the invisible, visible.”
[i] Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Human Ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1989, p. 581.
[ii] Eibl-Eibesfeldt, p. 174.
[iii] Leviticus 19: 33-34.
[iv] Gerda van de Windt, Art, Creativity, and the Imagination. Limited Edition Publishing, 2010.
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