A life caught between floors
by Richard Dodds
At home, playwright-director Chay Yew has been partnered for 10 years. At work, he is much more leery about making attachments.
"To be honest, I don't attach myself to things," he said, with "attach," in this case, used as the showbiz term signifying a project joined to help make a saleable whole. Yew saw his early involvement as director of the new musical Stuck Elevator as prelude to a professional kiss.
"It's always based on that point where it feels right for us to go on this date together," Yew said during a break in rehearsals for Stuck Elevator, having its world premiere this week at ACT. "Then we can move to the next level of dating if it still feels right."
The courtship between Yew and Stuck Elevator authors Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jefferis took hold in a workshop at the Yale Institute of Music Theatre in 2010, although Yew wanted a more open relationship. "It was at first a solo show," he said, "and when I started working on it, I said, 'This is not a solo show.' I worked with the two of them to create this piece."
It is a piece that defies common descriptors. "Frankly, I didn't know how to categorize it myself," Yew said, and the promotional tag "comic-rap-scrap-metal-opera" doesn't exactly clarify the issue. But the basic premise, based on an actual incident, is easy to comprehend. A restaurant deliveryman, living in New York without documentation, finds himself stuck between floors in an apartment elevator. To push the "help" button means probable discovery and deportation to China.
At ACT, opera veteran Julius Ahn is playing the deliveryman, with four additional actors creating multiple roles, including the trapped man's wife and child, as his memories, hopes, and fears unfold on stage. "You see a person's life distilled to its essence in 80 minutes," Yew said. "That's the beauty of theater."
At another workshop for new theater pieces, this one sponsored by Sundance Institute, Stuck Elevator attracted the attention of ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff while representatives of other theater companies scratched their heads. "They didn't know how they would market it," Yew said. "Carey was the one who said, 'I like it. I'm going to do it.'"
The resumes of composer Au Yong and librettist Jefferis certainly don't resemble those of most musical-theater creators. "The new generation is very good at borrowing, sampling, and then it becomes a new thing," Yew said. "That's why it's hard to categorize Stuck Elevator. It belongs sometimes in old Broadway musicals, yet it's new music and it's also music from Asia, but it's completely hip-hop. It's its own creature."
Yew, who left Singapore to attend college in the U.S., devotes much of his time directing new works, especially now as artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre, but his initial theatrical identity was shaped by his work as a playwright in the 1990s. Early works such as A Language of Their Own and Porcelain came out of his experiences being gay and Asian in the Western World.
"My first set of plays were identity plays. 'Who am I?' At some point it becomes not 'Who am I?' but 'How do I relate with the other people?' Belonging, that's what my stuff is about, the notion of place and home, and that's what Stuck Elevator is about."
Although Yew, 47, can see a thread running through his work as a playwright and his choices as a director, he has mostly avoided overt autobiography. "I'm more interested in stepping into other people's lives. The only piece I deliberately wrote coming from my private life is in A Language of Their Own, where this guy tells the other guy why he speaks perfect English, and it s because his dad used to whip him when didn't get it right, and my dad did that. I was 9 years old, and we stayed up to 3 o'clock, and in anger he struck me when I didn't get my tenses right. There were just welts everywhere, we had to wear shorts to school, and it was completely humiliating. But I got an A."
Yew's parents, who still live in Singapore, are quietly accepting of him being gay, he said. "They were pretty cool about it, otherwise they never would have let me come to this country, and I'd be in my tub singing 'Don't Rain on My Parade.'"