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The first Chinese woman in the United States was exhibited like an object in a room full of Asian goods and furniture.

Teenager Afong Moy was brought from her home in Guangzhou, China, to New York in 1834 by two traders with a promise that she would go back in two years. She was put on display as the "Chinese Lady," with her 4-inch feet, because of the practice of foot-binding, becoming an advertised attraction.

As more people became curious about her, she headlined tours up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But we do not know much about her, including whether she made it home or when she died, partly because her words were not written and partly because her story has some dire twists.

When playwright Lloyd Suh first read about her in "The Making of Asian America: A History," a 2015 book by former University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee (who left for Harvard University in July), he was immobilized. In fact, he became obsessed with her.

Moy was a stranger in a land where she did not speak the language and could not realize her dreams, Suh said. "She is unknowable in a way that began to really hurt. It was painful to think about how she was discarded and forgotten."

He decided to honor her in the best way he knows by writing "The Chinese Lady," now up in a regional premiere at Open Eye Theatre in Minneapolis. Marked by pathos and wry humor, "Lady" is as much about a historical figure as it is about "the experience of being lost," Suh said.

"This play is an opportunity for me, the actors and the community to try and conjure her. It's a way to find a healing."

A different kind of actor

Suh thinks of Moy as an actor on a different kind of stage. He relates to her as someone with whom he shares a theatrical craft. Moy's act — mostly silent and full of gestures — must have been complicated by her sense of isolation from and simultaneous dependence on her paying audience.

"What we portray to the world may be different than what we are," he said.

As Moy's stardom dimmed and as exhibitions of her became less and less popular, she ended up in the poorhouse, where she stayed for years before getting picked up by P.T. Barnum, a showman and the co-founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Being an exhibit became her best life and livelihood.

The team behind "Lady" said the play, and the character, may be based in history but really are about us today at a time when many of the stereotypical images and ideas still infect how people talk about Asian Americans, including the fetishization of Asian women, emasculation of Asian men and recent rise in hate crimes against them.

In excavating history and giving voice to a character who didn't have one, Suh said he was mindful not to give too much of Moy's trauma over to the actors depicting her. He didn't want historical hurts that they may not even know they're carrying to surface in them.

Tell that to Twin Cities performer Katie Bradley, who's playing Moy at Open Eye.

In the middle of a recent rehearsal, Bradley was overcome by the scene where Moy meets Andrew Jackson. The president asks to touch her feet. Bradley needed a break.

"That's basically like saying please take off all your clothes — it's humiliating," Bradley said. "This is one of the hardest roles I've ever played. She was just this object to be exoticized and viewed as a nonhuman, like an animal in a cage."

For director Eric Sharp, who is making his mainstage directorial debut with "Lady," the scene with Jackson is telling not just because of the disgrace implicit in it "from a Chinese cultural perspective at that time." It also is fascinating because Moy is discovering her own shame for the first time.

"When she was brought here so young, it's presented to her as a wonderful opportunity to be in America," Sharp said. "But being put on display teaches her that it's shameful."

No fourth wall

People often say that the audience is critical to any show, but Sharp believes that that is especially true in "Lady," whose characters are Moy and her male translator Atung, played by Michael Sung Ho. For most of the show, Moy speaks directly to the audience.

"Afong Moy would have never been brought to the U.S. and certainly wouldn't have stayed here if people weren't lining up to see her," Sharp said. "We look at the practice of exhibiting people today and our jaws drop. But the reality is that there are still parts of Asian culture that's really exoticized. I think of the scantily clad women in go-go bars in 'Miss Saigon.'"

The team behind "Lady" likens the play to a "magic trick." It deals with heavy history but it's potently entertaining, as well. Moy has moments of levity.

For Bradley, the humor in the play helps amplify a thread of optimism as we think about a person whose voice and dreams we can only imagine.

"There's a through-line of hope that we can learn from these things and really see each other if we take the time," Bradley said. "It's not sugarcoated by any means, but it doesn't just knock you out and make you have to sleep for 10 hours."

At one point in "Lady," Moy thanks the audience for listening to her past.

Then she says, ruefully, "it is all that's left of me."

'The Chinese Lady'
By: Lloyd Suh. Directed by Eric Sharp and produced by Joel Sass.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Sept. 24.
Where: Open Eye Theatre, 506 E. 24th St., Mpls.
Tickets: $18-$30. 612-874-6338 or
Protocol: Masks required for Sunday performances.