This play is so good. Like there is a way in which sometimes I read a play and I’m breathless by the end of it…I think it is an incredible piece of both storytelling and heartfelt meeting of humans in a space that is theatre.

Aileen Wen McGroddy

Geva Theatre Center was one of many regional theatre’s to present THE CHINESE LADY this season. A play inspired by Afong Moy who was purportedly the first Chinese woman in the United States of America. She was brought to this country in 1834, when she was 14 years old, where she was exhibited with objects from China. Afong Moy was here to promote the sale of these objects but she was also an additional oddity from an exotic land put on display to view for a fee.

Before the play closed on May 8, I had the opportunity to interview the play’s director Aileen Wen McGroddy.

Rachel DeGuzman  

In May 2016, “the Asian American Arts Alliance, Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Theatre Communications Group (TCG), Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center launched the national initiative” – Beyond Orientalism – “to combat the pervasiveness of yellow face, brown face, and white washing in US culture as well as to advocate for more API representation in the arts.” I saw the video of the same name at the TCG conference in June that year, in Washington, D.C.

Six years later, is the production of a play like THE CHINESE LADY indicative of a shift in API representation or is it an anomaly?

Aileen Wen McGroddy

I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I mean, I think there is a broader cultural shift towards more inclusion of stories that have been historically repressed or not given the resources to exist on our biggest stages, but I think particularly things a little more recently like the “We See You White American Theatre” movement has given a greater awareness that many of us who have worked in the theatre knew. A greater sense of urgency really at the institutional level to give resources and produce work by playwrights of color. Of course Asian playwrights are included in that group.

I think for THE CHINESE LADY in particular the urgency to produce this work is all around us. You know the pandemic certainly has proven to increase the level of violence that Asian America communities and people are experiencing and that is giving a renewed, I keep saying urgency but I think that’s right. A renewed urgency to understand what are the seeds that were planted long ago that have brought us to the current moment where we’re seeing a lot of hate speech, violence, and discrimination against the Asian American community. And I think this play does an excellent job of both talking about what seeds were there, how they were planted, and pulling that story all the way up into the present moment.

Rachel DeGuzman

Why do you think THE CHINESE LADY is the most produced play for the 2021/2022 season in regional theaters? It so exciting!

Aileen Wen McGroddy

It’s incredibly exciting and I think that’s so right. This play is so good. Like there is a way in which sometimes I read a play and I’m breathless by the end of it. And I felt that way at the end of this one. That even on the page the play is just great. I think it is an incredible piece both of storytelling and like heartfelt meeting of humans in the space that is theatre. But also it is incredibly well crafted. It is funny. The characters are fantastic. The way that the play is structured is incredibly smart.

I think most importantly the play itself desperately needs to be a play. That this play is an encounter and the kinds of plays that really need to be on stage assert that inside of themselves. And I think this play does that.

And also because of current events, I think a lot of regional theatres are predominantly white institutions who are looking to program more artists of color. Are looking to include more playwrights of color. To have more representative stories on their stages. I’m sure that many playwrights of color are experiencing renewed or new interest. As theaters are looking to catch up, honestly, with the times.

And then I think a third thing is that this play on a logistical level is a two hander and it is a pretty producible play in a theatre world that is constantly threatened by COVID. You know, it’s not a play that is asking for the large ensemble. And it is a play that is a really clear strong work that two actors, supported by a team of designers and technicians can do. So a little cheaper than some other plays you can do, I’m sure.

Rachel DeGuzman

Humor seems to be critical to a play with a heavy theme such as THE CHINESE LADY. Does it help to make the characters more three dimensional?

Aileen Wen McGroddy

Oh yeah! And I think that is dead on. That humor is deeply a part of what makes us human. One of the moments that I love is how Christina acts on stage is when Atung says, I am staying. When she is expecting (that) she’s getting kicked out of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and he says I’m staying and she… her character is deeply shocked and hurt by this news. It is coming to her out of the blue. And the way Christina approaches that moment is this deep laughter bubbles out of her. In this moment of extreme pain. In this moment of feeling the biggest betrayal that she has felt from who we understand to be her only friend and her only community.

 I think that is very true of a lot of our most painful experiences. That the way we move (through) them are like these big kinds of breaths that move though our bodies. And whether that is sobs. Whether it is laughter. It is all part of the same medicine. And I think that makes us connect to the characters in the play. It makes us see ourselves in them and when you share laughter, when you share laughter from the stage across into the audience, it gets us in the audience to breathe with the characters so there’s this sort of physical intimacy that occurs.

Rachel DeGuzman

Can you talk about the bottle of water which Atung gave to Afong Moy long before the plays narrative became contemporary? I’m intrigued and want to know what it symbolized.

Aileen Wen McGroddy

I’m so glad you asked me about this and I’m curious you’re the first person to approach me about the water bottle. I thought that other people were going to be, what was that about?

I’m happy to talk about it because it is one of my favorite moments in the play and the reason is that in my understanding of the greater construction of the performance of this play—as the lines go in the end and she says this is not my voice for it was never recorded. This is not my body for it no longer exists. That what we’re creating is this performance. It’s this echo of the past that is being recreated by actual humans that are present here in the theatre with us, in the present. So, you know, the actor Christina is present with us as well as the spirit of Afong Moy and for me traveling through all this material I was always on the lookout for like, ok, so who’s here right now. It’s not just Afong Moy when she is 202 years old is here also when 14 year old Afong Moy is on stage. That’s the way that we are thinking about time is that we are all here, actually here in this moment, in the performance together.

 So this moment when the water bottle comes out, it comes out after this pretty violent moment where Atung grabs Afong’s face and pushes her face out to the audience and says they are watching. And he is sort of asserting to her that this is the thing you serve. You serve their gaze. That is why you’re here. And all of your other concerns boil down to they are watching and it is your job to be watched. And that moment is so intense. It is quite violent and I think it sort of shocks us in the audience to see him particularly, who we’ve grown to love.

He’s like a charming character to sort of assert in this way and we’re headed into the next thing that happens in the script is that is Atung’s monologue where he tells about his dream. And, for me, it was like during his monologue Afong Moy isn’t present. She has no lines during that sequence and I would love as a director, someone who is holding space and able to provide some amount of resources – I want to give Christina, the actor – a break. And because it wasn’t quite in our dramaturgical world to have her leave the stage and come back because she doesn’t do that in the show until she really leaves. I was like, okay, what can we do to give her a break? And it wasn’t giving Afong Moy a break. I wanted to give Christina a break from having to perform Afong Moy. And I wanted to give her a time where she could be herself for a second. It also why she takes off her shoes in the moment. And the way that we got there is after this grab moment we see the actor Christina step out of it.

 Many of us that have been in rehearsal rooms have witnessed or been part of a moment where a scene gets too intense and like a part of our intimate selves gets touched in a way that is past a boundary. I am deeply into consent based practices in the theater. I think that is such an important and sadly recent development in how we make art. But that moment when two actors something real and painful transpires between them. You know like we’re doing a contact slap on stage but if an actor goes too hard all of the sudden it really crosses the line from a fictional slap to a real slap.

For me that moment of the face grab is the moment where it crosses from the fictional characters doing this to the real characters doing this. And how do we move through moments like that? So Atung or rather Roger steps out. He gives her space. He leaves the stage. He gives her (Christina) time and he comes back with an idea. Like maybe this would work. Do you want a little water? Do you want some tissues? Maybe Christina takes her time. Takes off her shoes. Takes a little break. She takes the water bottle and it’s for her. It’s for Christina.

When we talked about this in rehearsal, I kept on being like what do you want? Do you want a snack? We could bring you a sweater. We could bring you some headphones. There are a lot of options, of things that could come back out. We settled on the water bottle because it is so aggressively anachronistic. Particularly the little water bottle. My guess is in 20 years-time, I don’t think we’ll have those anymore. They’re just absurdly current to me. So that felt right to give the actor Christina a chance to drink some water if she wanted it. Some tissues to blow her nose or anything like that.

What was important to me is that it was such a gesture of care and we got to see two actors move through a moment where a level of, like a boundary around intimacy perhaps had been breached and how they might move through a moment like that and be able to meet each other again on the other side.

I think we have to take care of ourselves and each other. I think in the theatre as an industry, the theatre industrial complex isn’t particularly (good) at taking care of our human selves. And I do think I have to be optimistic about it. We’re learning to do a better job of it. And it can be really small things. That we learn to be kinder to ourselves and each other as we make art.

Rachel DeGuzman

What’s next?

Aileen Wen McGroddy

I have three projects in the works. Something that I love about being a director is on the one hand, I can be in these plays that are just coming into being. Plays that are creating space for themselves and like all the nooks and crannies and the new spaces that a new play, the molds it can break, the ways it can define itself anyway it wants. I love that and I also get to work on the Charles Dickens story that everyone has consumed a million times and that everyone who comes to see A CHRISTMAS CAROL very likely knows what happens. It’s this story that is told and retold and I get to work with that material and sort of mold it into a shape that feels exciting and current and meets the audience where we are today.

Details:

  • She just finished working with Ro Reddick as director on THROWBACK ISLANDat Brown University.

About the play: Six “sexy singles” go to a secluded island for nostalgia soaked good vibes, #truelove, and a chance to win a $100K. But when a strongman bachelor enters the villa there is a lot more at stake than a pot of money¦ Throwback Island is a dark satire that explores homegrown, all-American fascism through a bonkers reality dating show.

  • This summer she is directing a staged reading of Seayoung Yim’s prize winning play JAR OF FATat New Works Now Festival at Northern Stage.

About the play: In a fantastical fairytale world, two Korean American sisters are deemed too fat to fit in their family grave. Will the sisters’ close bond survive under the pressure of their community and fretful parents, who will spare no effort to get them tinier? JAR OF FAT is an absurdist comedy that explores desire, ugliness, and beauty.

  • Starting in November she directs Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Trinity Rep.

To learn more about the fascinating Aileen Wen McGroddy visit her website here.

Other Geva Theatre Center programs associated with THE CHINESE LADY:

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