CAMBRIDGE — When it came to the craft of writing, E.B. White’s famous dictum was: “Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.”
That’s the path Lloyd Suh took with “The Chinese Lady,” and it has yielded a small gem of a play about a person who is seen and unseen at the same time.
After premiering in 2018 at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company and then running at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year, “The Chinese Lady” is now at Central Square Theater under the sensitive and astute direction of Sarah Shin.
Suh’s play was inspired by a real-life figure, Afong Moy, who was brought from China to New York in 1834 at age 14 and put on display in a museum. At Central Square, Sophorl Ngin delivers an expertly shaded portrayal of Afong that traces her emotional arc while also signaling the slow-but-steady dawning of her consciousness. As Atung, her translator, Jae Woo delivers a note-perfect performance.
Over 90 absorbing minutes, with only occasional lapses into overly message-y territory, “The Chinese Lady” essentially distills the history of anti-Asian prejudice and exploitation in the United States — as well as the (very) dark side of the immigrant experience — within Afong’s story.
When we first meet her, Afong is heartbreakingly innocent and chipper. Seated on an upholstered chair at center stage and smiling brightly, she explains — as if there were nothing odd about the arrangement — how her family “sold me for two years of service” to two traders from an American import company. Now she is on display “for your education and entertainment.”
At each performance, Afong enacts various rituals: eating rice with chopsticks, pouring tea, walking around a room on her bound feet. She tells us that the terms of the deal that brought her to the United States were that she would return to her homeland and her family in two years. That does not happen. In “The Chinese Lady,” her servitude lasts for decades.
Those of us in the Central Square Theater essentially function as stand-ins for 19th-century spectators, implicating us in all we see and hear in “The Chinese Lady” — a notion shrewdly underscored by director Shin when Afong tears down upstage curtains to reveal a large, circular mirror. From then on, we watch ourselves watching.
Crucially, Shin avoids the kind of ham-fisted staging decisions that seriously marred the ending of the otherwise excellent Public Theater production. What Shin has devised for the ending at Central Square is less showy and comports better with the nature of the play.
At first, Afong is touchingly eager to make a connection with Americans (she speaks glowingly of “your first emperor, George Washington.”) Afong sees her role as that of cultural ambassador, a human bridge of understanding between China and the United States. Atung, the translator, clearly knows that the museum’s goal is nothing so noble as that.
Outside that room, history inexorably unfolds: the construction of the transcontinental railroad, starting in 1863 and using primarily Chinese laborers; the 1882 passage by Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese migration to the US. Inside that room, Afong and Atung are growing older. “With each passing hour, I am less and less Chinese,” Afong says.
Their relationship evolves over time, defined by amusing byplay at the start. With the hauteur of a born star, Afong tells the audience several times that Atung is “irrelevant" to the show; his imperturbable responses, which she recognizes as passive-aggression, get on her nerves.
As years pass and they play their roles day after day, including a 40-week tour of the Eastern states, they achieve a certain solidarity, perhaps bolstered by a realization that they are both, in different ways, trapped. But are their fates as inextricably tied together as Afong believes they are?
Qingan Zhang’s set and Sandra Zhihan Jia’s costumes are as graceful as the play itself, while Kai Bohlman’s excellent sound design both punctuates and heightens changes in circumstance and mood.
When Atung finally bursts from his shell of self-containment and fiercely reveals his fantasies of autonomy, vengeance, and power, Woo is nothing short of riveting. In another scene, one that makes your flesh crawl, Afong meets a boorish President Andrew Jackson (portrayed by Woo), who asks if he can touch her feet. Then Jackson does so, lingeringly, while declaring Afong’s feet “at once disgusting and mesmerizing." Throughout the excruciating sequence, Ngin wrenchingly communicates Afong’s sense of violation.
Of course, her entire situation constitutes a violation. Having noted in the opening scene that “My entire life is a performance," she later poses a haunting question to Atung: “What do they see when they see me?"
THE CHINESE LADY
Play by Lloyd Suh. Directed by Sarah Shin. Presented by Central Square Theater in partnership with CHUANG Stage. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through Dec. 11. $25-$78. 617-576-9278, ext. 1; www.centralsquaretheater.org