Set Sail on an Historical Voyage

What might happen when a fledgling nation encounters a great foreign empire for the first time? Will these disparate cultures be able to find common ground despite a severe language barrier? Are there goods and services that each country can trade with the other to initiate continued economic connections? Such are the questions at stake in the Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America’s production of The Empress of China. This play, written and directed by Joanna Chan, tackles an important historical moment, attempting to display what it was like when China and the United States of America first began trading, but peppering the retelling of that event with some intriguing fictionalized fare. This play is well worth watching, both for its entertainment value and the history lesson that it provides. The play centers on the first trade voyage to set sail from the US to China. The piece jumps back and forth in time, taking us from the Americans landing in WhamPao Reach back to their early negotiations with their financial sponsors in the new United States. From the American side, scandal abounds: their first trade idea is to sell northwestern furs at an exorbitant cost and a substantial sum of money is “borrowed” from the coffers by one of the men. Although these conflicts appear to be the source of the dramatic action in this play, the real drama unfolds after the intermission. One of the young American ambassadors to China finds himself attracted to Miss Purple Lotus, daughter of one of the men with whom the Americans wish to do business.

The romance between these two characters is the highlight of the play. As Purple Lotus, Annie Q. plays the innocent young woman with excitement and demureness. She carries herself perfectly in the role and is well-complimented by the performance of Andrei Drooz as her new love interest First Supercargo Samuel Shaw. Watching him struggle over his own sense of honor in the dirty dealings of business is compelling. The lovers' few shared scenes are accentuated with the recitation of Chinese poetry as well as a lesson in traditional American dance of the period. These sweet moments bring out the real magic possible in a first intercultural exchange.

This play contends with the shaky ground on which such global negotiation occurs. Indeed, the distances between cultures are highlighted. The play is performed partially in Mandarin Chinese and partly in English (for the audience, subtitles are projected). The characters are forced to contend with translators and ultimately with some key misunderstandings that threaten to tear their trade enterprises apart. Yet, the play also highlights how much is to be gained by the opening of national shores to new cultures. Purple Lotus seems enchanted by the American ideas that she is learning for the first time; Shaw is also intrigued by the Chinese ways and customs.

These cultural details are enhanced by a gorgeous array of period costumes on stage, created by Xu HaoJian and Edmond Wong. The music, by Yuan Cheuk-Wa, is also a sumptuous feast for the ears, punctuating the acts in a fulfilling way. However, the piece does have moments in which it drags, particularly those which focus solely on business negotiations and politics. There is a bit too much talking on stage, which, at times, slows the piece down. Without a strong background in the histories of both nations during the period, some sections are difficult to follow, making the long discussions seem a bit distancing.

Overall, however, The Empress of China is a real treat for New York audiences. It is a chance to encounter a significant historical event with which one may not have been familiar previously. It is also a chance to delight in eighteenth-century culture and view not only how different a time it was from our own, but also, and more importantly, to realize the ways in which our modern moment is not so different at all. This play is worth watching, no matter from which shore you originally hail.

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