When Lloyd Suh found out that his play The Chinese Lady won the Horton Foote Prize, the playwright’s first reaction was an overwhelming sense of humility—especially in this COVID era. With so many people currently out of work, it’s an honor to be recognized and also puts into stark relief the need to create impactful work for audiences.
“I’m trying to figure out what that means, but with a prize like this it makes it more acute,” says Suh (Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, American Hwangap, and Franklinland). The Foote Prize is given biennially to a piece of American theatre for its excellence, and Suh has long been aware of it, citing Foote as both a writer and person he has long admired. Traditionally, the $50,000 reward has been split between two playwrights, like 2018's winners Lauren Yee and Jaclyn Backhaus or the inaugural winners Lynn Nottage and Will Eno in 2010, but this time around, Suh was the sole winner.
The Chinese Lady was first staged in a co-production by Ma-Yi Theater and Barrington Stage Company in 2018. Two productions were then mounted in 2019, one at Milwaukee Rep and another at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. A staging at Long Wharf was planned for March 2020, but canceled due to the pandemic. The play follows the story of Afong Moy, a Chinese immigrant who was put on display as a sideshow attraction when she arrived in the U.S. and performed for the next 45 years on the road. It explores the treatment of 19th-century immigrants arriving in the U.S. and acknowledges an absence of those historical accounts today.
In addition to being a biography, The Chinese Lady explores the idea of duality as an artist and a human being. “I talk about this a lot with my peers, and anyone in the performing arts, about the difference of who you really are and who others think you are,” says Suh. “Who you are versus what you’re expected to be, and how does that begin to influence and change who you are? What you do is perform an identity.”
Suh discovered Moy’s story while researching Asian-American history. In a blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment, the playwright read a short mention of Moy in the introduction of a book. Immediately, he was hooked and went on an exploration of this woman who was missing from the textbooks.
Despite the play's century-old setting, the playwright writes from an unavoidably contemporary lens. “I never want it to be limited by the moment in which it’s staged," he says. "The way I approach history can have resonance not just now but honor what came before, and also provide something for generations in the future.”
In addition to framing The Chinese Lady as a story missing from today’s schoolbooks, he’s laying the groundwork for future generations. “I want to prepare [my children] for the world, but I also want to try and prepare the world for them," he says. "The work that I do now, it can't just be about now. Otherwise, it's not worth doing.”
Shedding a light on stories like these creates greater visibility for Asian Americans not just on stage but for children who see themselves in a predominately white landscape in history class. Add to that the human condition of adopting a performative nature, and Suh has created a piece that strikes a balance between past exploration, present condemnation, and future preparation.