As a working NYC set designer with a strong sense of FOMO, I love to see any and every show playing around me. I’m constantly in search of new forms of storytelling and artmaking to inspire and transport me. So, it was with huge pleasure that I went to the opening night of The Chinese Lady produced by Ma-Yi Theatre Company at the Public Theater. Wildly theatrical, visually stunning, and urgently relevant, the play goes on an epic journey while boldly standing completely still. It manages to be both an absurdist comedy, and an uncompromising elegy of American history.
The day after opening night set designer Junghyun Georgia Lee and I met over Zoom to talk about the inspirations to create the visual landscape of the play, and our personal connection to the story.
Georgia: It was so nice to see you yesterday.
Wilson: It was so nice to be with so many other Asian peeps.
G: I don't know if you remember, if you think back from the years after we graduated from graduate school, we didn't have that many Asian designers.
W: Oh I know, it would just be like one or two people.
G: (Laughs) We were probably the only people in the room at that time. But now we’ve kind of found each other and created a community. It’s an awesome thing. But also, a little scary. You know what Chay Yew told me once was that we all judge each other like our dads did. (Laughs) It’s comforting, but it’s also like my siblings coming to see my show.
W: I hear you. Yesterday, before the opening night show, with the dragon dance in the lobby, it reminded me of when I was a kid and my family would go out to dinner for Chinese New Year and we would watch a dragon dance in Chinatown. And the play, talking about the Transcontinental Railroad, which my mom always told me my great-great-great-grandfather was a part of, triggered a lot of memories, and history that I don't really know about because it's been hidden from me. I don't know if it's the same with you, but I think for Chinese Americans, there’s so much history our parents don't tell us. I remember my grandfather was missing a finger, and he would just say, “Oh, I lost it when I was playing with fireworks when I was a kid.” But I don’t know if I really believe that story. Or the story that my grandfather had moved to the US years before the rest of the family did, and my grandmother went to California searching for him, and just happened to find him walking on the streets and, like, that’s the whole story. And I’m like, “Okay, there's more to the story than that!”
G: (Laughs) They didn't really practice how to tell that story to younger generations afterwards! For me, I'm one generation removed. I’m an immigrant and my family is still all in Korea. I'm the first one who came here. Now I have a daughter, I've been here for over 20 years, but only a week before shutdown I got my American citizenship.
G: Thank you. I had to think about what citizenship I should hold for a long time, because, you know, I'm very Korean, but I'm also very American.
W: Was there anything in that experience that makes you feel connected to Afong Moy?
G: I do in a very different way. I connect a lot with anybody who is relocating or moving from one space to another world. The Chinese Lady is a Chinese American immigrant story, but it's a lot more than that. It’s about how a person can be objectified and viewed and presented in a certain way. The glorified version would be like a museum gallery presentation, with an artistic intention. But when that intention becomes a sales point, it becomes like a meat market. When I first started on this project, I did a lot of reading about Afong Moy and Chinese American history, but I also went and did research about how people present themselves, like when people walk into an installation, for example. What is that experience like? I did a lot of research on variations like the Museum of Natural History dioramas showing different continents and their costumes. I even did research how sex workers are presented across the world like the Red Light District in Amsterdam and in South Korea and Japan.
W: It's about the objectification of a human being. Turning a human being into an object for display.
G: The objectification of Asian women.
W: Which is why there's so much violence against Asian Americans right now, because we're not seen as human beings. We're seen as objects.
G: In the play, when she tries to lash out, but she’s being watched and she has to compose herself, that sort of element is in there. We aren’t allowed to lash out.
W: And the way she takes blame for everything. She blames herself for not having lived a life that could have somehow prevented every terrible moment in Asian American history from happening. All that internalization and self-blame.
G: And another thing that is interesting is that for non-English speakers, the first thing that comes out of our mouth when something is wrong is, “I'm sorry.” So, that becomes the foundation of what people see us as. As very apologetic and agreeable.
G: I also had images of steakhouses and meat markets. The meat is lit with pink lights and it's really scarily similar to the way the Red Light District is lit. It's a weird way of objectifying something but also biological and sexual and somewhat kind of trying to be sanitizing. I find that really interesting: about what people think is attractive and appetizing. So, I tried to incorporate that change of color in the design. In one scene, it can look pink and peachy and glorious, but when you just swap it with lighting, it becomes something that is very green and decaying.
W: I was so impressed by how much your set was able to transform with lights and projections. You really felt like you're on a journey. One of my favorite visual moments of the show is the very final moment when you turn on that little strip of LED tape light around the picture frame, and it becomes blinding and lights the audience. We’ve been watching the Afong Moy all evening and in that final moment, she and the stage are looking right back at us. It flips the switch on who is watching and who is being watched.
G: It’s almost like a scanner, like a photocopier.
W: Let’s talk about the shipping container that begins the show.
G: That was the idea I always wanted. I went to undergraduate in Canada, and there was a railroad that cuts across the city. When you get stuck in traffic and have to wait till that train passes with all the shipping containers with all these labels, and you sit in your car just looking at it, you wonder what is in there.
W: It’s the perfect visual metaphor to begin the show.
G: I really want playwrights like Lloyd [Suh] to be heard more. You really can’t categorize someone as just an Asian American designer or Asian American playwright. They’re American, and we're actually a big part of it.
W: Asian American history IS American history.
G: I want all the artistic directors and producers across the country to just let that weigh in. I want more Asian American directors to be working and Asian American designers. You know, it’s very embarrassing, because I'm Asian and self-promoting is always challenging. (Laughs)
W: If we don't promote ourselves, no one else will.
Photos by Joan Marcus.