"Stuck Elevator" began in 2005 when Bryon Au Yong began following news stories about a Chinese restaurant deliveryman from the Happy Dragon who disappeared after dropping off an order of curried shrimp and fried rice in the Bronx.
Co-workers found his the worker's bicycle chained outside a 38-story apartment building and worried that he had been robbed or murdered. It turned out the deliveryman, a Chinese undocumented immigrant who spoke nearly no English, was trapped for 81 hours without food or water between the third and fourth floors in a 4-foot-by- 6-and-a-half-foot express elevator, which skipped all floors between the second and 21st. The grad school composer thought there was something in the story worth exploring on stage.
He talked with Aaron Jafferis, his classmate at New York University graduate music theater program, and together they began developing a new work, inspired by the ripped-from-the-headlines story.
After years of readings and workshops and developmental commissions from the Yale Institute for Music Theatre and two Sundance Theatre Institute Labs, "Stuck Elevator," which is described as "a comic-rap-scrap metal musical," will make its East Coast premiere at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, as part of New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
The new co-production by the festival and Long Wharf, staged by playwright-director Chay Yew, follows its world premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in April. A tour is planned following the festival run.
The show stars Julius Ahn in the principal role in the five-actor, sung-though hybrid of musical theater and opera.
"I first saw the work at a book-in-hand reading in New York years ago," says Mary Lou Aleskie, director of the festival. At the time it had one character, but it was so powerful to me."
The festival is co-producing the show with Long Wharf Theatre and ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann, which also produced Hartford Stage's "Man in a Case" with Mikhail Baryshnikov. "[Co-producing the show] is a leap of faith for us," says Aleskie. "But it's a timely show with immigration reform, and it's something that resonates in the New Haven community as well."
The engagement is also an artistic homecoming for the self-described "hip-pop poet and playwright" Jafferis who grew up in New Haven, studied at the Educational Center for the Arts, and started developing his writing and performance skills. (He was in the Long Wharf Theatre community-centric production of "The Good Person of New Haven" in 2000.)
"The theme of immigration is one I am fascinated with and which is really important here," says Jafferis, 37, who lived a block from the Yale Bowl in the Westville section of New Haven and is a 1993 graduate of Hillhouse High School. ("I was the shy nerdy white kid," he says.) He now lives in the city's Fairhaven section.
Another aspect of the story that drew Jafferis to the project is the theme of isolation.
"The feeling of loneliness, particularly living in New York City, was something I felt keenly," he says. "Coming from such a strong community in New Haven, I felt community-less when I was living there. I had a roommate I didn't see very often. I wasn't part of any artistic community, even in grad school, because I really wasn't into [traditional Broadway] musicals."
But Jafferis sees the play's theme of isolation on a larger scale.
"In the U.S., there's this emphasis on individualism and success, as opposed to some other cultures. So [in 'Stuck Elevator'] we have this guy who is so far from his family back in China, who is not very connected to the people where he works, who doesn't have friends or family, who doesn't speak the language — and to add another layer to that isolation, he's stuck in this elevator.
Isolation and Imagination
Both Jafferis and Yong identify with aspects of the main character.
"We were both only children," says Jafferis, "so we had experiences where we had to entertain ourselves for long periods of time when we were younger, which is something our character of Guang has to do in the elevator. He has a really active imagination which is why we have four other actors the show."
Jafferis says they resisted adding characters during much of the show's development "because we felt it was important to show his isolation and that giving him other people to bounce off seemed like cheating. But what we found was when we allow him to have a moment in his memory with his wife and son who are back in China and then he comes back to the reality of the elevator, it's like — boom! — the walls are back. It actually heightens the isolation."
It also enabled Jafferis and Yong to explore Guang's internal conflicts deeper: Should he stay or return to China. Should he abandon his family in China and start a new one here?
The creators also added the characters of Guang's estranged brother-in-law, a 22-year-old nephew who was smuggled with Guang on a container ship to this country, and most significantly, the character of another immigrant delivery man — from Tlaxcala, Mexico, home to many New Haven immigrants.
"Having a character who has been in this country a little bit longer and who has a wider connection to the culture here than Guang has allowed us to get different perspectives of what it means to be an immigrant in this country," Jafferis says.
Jafferis describes himself as "the shy, nerdy white kid" during his high school years in New Haven at the primarily black Hillhouse High School. He didn't begin to find his own confidence until he went to the Educational Center for the Arts.
"Hip hop and theater gave me my voice," he says, "and allowed my shy self to inhabit other characters and be wild and crazy and be the things I wanted to be but was afraid to be in real life."
But he still felt unable to articulate his passion for political issues. "My heart and soul and brain wanted to talk and argue about the world but I was too shy or stumbling or whatever to do so."
It wasn't until he was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley that his artistic and political selves merged.
"I took a 'Poetry for the People' class under June Jordan and it was liberating. I learned that it wasn't enough to write a political poem about some issue but that you had to connect it to your own experience. It was my introduction to the idea that art could be really personal, funny, political, activist all at once." By his senior year he wrote and performed his first hip-hop play.
He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in arts and social change, and an MFA in musical theater writing from NYU, studying under composer William Finn. He has since received the Richard Rodgers Award, a MacDowell Fellowship, and Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award and was named one of "The Dramatist's" "50 To Watch." His other works include "Kingdom" (developed at New York's Public Theater and produced at the Old Globe in San Diego), "Blood Magic," "No Lie," "Ho to Break" (developed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and "Shakespeare: The Remix."
With "Struck Elevator," Jafferis and Yong create a political and personal work writ large — but perhaps too large at first.
Jafferis is happy for the opportunity to produce the work at a leading regional theater such as A.C.T. earlier spring but was at first apprehensive about the size of the 1,000-seat theater in San Francisco and his claustrophobic-set story.
"When I first saw the theater it threw me for a loop," he says. "But [director] Chay [Yew] told us that it's a bigger show than we thought, that it's operatic in a way and that it wasn't some downtown solo performance weirdness."
He says he's excited to see the show in the intimacy of the 200-seat Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre and Aleskie says the new production at the smaller theater will allow the show to tour more easily to more modest venues throughout the country.
Jafferis says he hopes the tour will create conversations in a year of national debate on immigration reform. He is also pleased with ancillary activities surrounding the New Haven production, from immigration rights activists setting up information tables in the lobby to a photography exhibit on New Haven immigrants at the theater to a parallel show created by working immigrant mothers in the city.
"But my main goal with this show in New Haven is to get my parents to like it. If that happens I will be happy," says Jafferis. His father is a grandson of Greek immigrants and his mother's family has English, Scottish and Irish roots.
And will the actual Chinese delivery man, Ming Kuang Chen, be in the New Haven audience, too?
He hasn't seen the show so far in its public workshops or San Francisco run, says Jafferis.
"He went into hiding after his [illegal] immigration status was revealed in 2005," he says. "A few people [we interviewed for the show] kept in touch with him but they have lost contact with him. The last they knew he was in Philadelphia somewhere."
But the character on stage is not Ming Kuang Chen.
"We realized from the beginning we were going to have to imagine things so we have created a character whose character is entirely different from him though the circumstantial details remain." They include the Bronx elevator, the 81 hours, a wife and son back in China, and the $80,000 remaining of a $120,000 debt to smugglers for his passage from China to the United States.
"Still," Jafferis says, "I would be curious to see these two very different characters meet."
STUCK ELEVATOR plays at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven. The run is Thursday, June 20 to June 29. Opening night is Friday, June 21. The running time is 81 minutes. Performances are June 20 and 21 at 8 p.m.; June 22 at 2 and 8 p.m.; June 23 at 2 p.m.; June 25 at 8 p.m.; June 26 at 2 and 8 p.m.; June 27 and 28 bat 8 p.m.; June 29 at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 and $55. Information: Long Wharf Theatre box office at 203-787-4282, through the Shubert Theater box office at 203-562-5666 or 888-736-2663 or www.artidea.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now