Rinabeth Apostol as “Afong Moy” in Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” at Magic Theatre, directed by
Mina Morita. | Photo by Adam Tolbert

MAGIC Theater is proud to present the Bay Area Premiere of Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady,” directed by Mina Morita.  Performing the lead role of “Afong Moy” — who is believed as the first Chinese woman to immigrate to the United States — is Filipino American thespian Rinabeth Apostol.

“The Chinese Lady” follows Afong Moy after she is brought from her hometown in Guangzhou, China to New York City in 1834 by Nathaniel and Frederick Carne and put on display for an eager public to learn of the exotic East.

The true story of Afong Moy, however, is only partly known.  Some say she was reportedly sent by merchants who wanted to use her as an ambassador for China to entice the public for Chinese items, other reports suggest that her family was paid for her time.  After New York, it was said that Afong Moy toured the U.S.   Nobody knew what happened to her after that, though many speculated that she either went back to China or faded into obscurity in the U.S.

Apostol, admits that not a lot of people, including her, knew about Afong Moy, sharing that after she got the part, she tried to do some research on her character.

Will Dao as “Atung” and Rinabeth Apostol as “Afong Moy”. | Photo by Jennifer Reiley

“I went to go look through all my old Asian American Studies books and I found like two or three sentences about her,” she said in an interview with Inquirer.net

“Basically, just saying who she was and what she did, but not really what purpose she served. It had more to do with: she was put on display; these were the people that put her on display. Not much more context in that. She is there for a very specific job and that is to be put on display,” she added.

The absence of more information led playwright Lloyd Suh to write a book about her.  “He could not find any information about her. It was not until during the process of the first production of this play that he and historian Nancy Davis started sharing more information and she eventually came out with a book after the world premiere of the play,” Apostol shared.

Rinabeth Apostol plays “Afong Moy,” the first Chinese woman to set foot in America in the play “The Chinese Lady.” | Photo by Jennifer Reiley

This absence also pushed Apostol to learn how to embrace her character to give it justice and life.  With “The Chinese Lady,” she was able to share the common goal with Suh in telling Afong Moy’s story.

A native of San Francisco, Apostol’s love for the arts started in a dance class when she was barely four years old, to correct her pigeon toes.  She shared in an interview with San Francisco Chronicle that she loved it more than her Filipino parents bargained for.   Although they encouraged her appreciation for the arts and both sides of her family are very musical, they really didn’t think that being an artist is what she will end up pursuing as a career.

“[For] Asian parents in general, especially Filipino parents, that is not a career path that is the norm to choose. They also fault themselves because they were the ones who exposed me to the arts and at the same time. I think for them, it comes from the immigrant mentality that you do need to work hard and you do need to find success. And this is not the way that people who look like us ever find success,” she said in an interview with Inquirer.net

Aside from the stage, Apostol has numerous acting credits that include independent films, TV and commercials.  She is also an educator, teaching dance and theater.

Joining Apostol in “The Chinese Lady” is actor Will Dao as the handler/translator “Atung.”

“The Chinese Lady” will be onstage until November 3 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco.  Performance schedules are Tuesday-7 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday-8 p.m., and Sunday-2:30 p.m.  Tickets range from $15 to $75.

For tickets you can go online at MagicTheatre.org, or call (415) 441-8822.

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