Opera singer Julius Ahn stars as Guang the deliveryman in “Stuck Elevator.”

Byron Au Yongs Stuck Elevator Impresses San Francisco During World Musical Premiere

Immigrant Experience of Everyday Deliveryman Inspires Questions of the American Dream

“DEAR EVERYONE,

COME LIVE WITH ME IN NEW YORK.

I FOUND A SPACIOUS PLACE.

IT HOLDS TWO THOUSAND POUNDS.”

– Guāng

Undocumented immigration is a hot topic — and not exactly a humorous one. While Congress continues impassioned debates about immigration policy, “Stuck Elevator,” which just completed its world premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) offers a personal and humorous look at issues impacting millions of undocumented workers living in the U.S.

“Stuck Elevator,” composed by celebrated Seattle composer Byron Au Yong and written by New Haven-based Aaron Jefferis, incorporates opera, drama, dance and rap into a fantastical single-act journey of a Chinese food deliveryman trapped in a Bronx high-rise elevator for 81 hours. The production is based on the true 2005 story of Ming Kuang Chen who failed to return from a delivery. He was quickly reported missing, but nobody knew where he was.

Guāng — the character depicting Chen’s experience almost immediately stuck in an apartment building elevator after making a Friday night delivery — is wonderfully performed by opera singer Julius Ahn. He is unable to call for help without a cell phone, and is certain that pressing the “Red Button” will alert the police and initiate deportation. As the clock ticks on, manifestations of key people in his life (finely performed by a supporting cast) begin to appear. What transpires for the next hour is his spiral into delirium marked by episodes of hope and despair.

For this journey, Au Yong delivers a powerful score with violin, cello, keyboard and percussion. Paired with Jefferis’ skillfully-crafted lyrics, he creates a confined world where desperation, delusion and absurdity are increasingly colliding. The script is simultaneously humorous and agonizing. A brilliant composition reflects this insanity; parts of the score can no better be described than upbeat dissonance.

Seattle-based composer Au Yong may be better known to local audiences for his site-responsive installation, “Kidnapping Water: Bottled Operas,” which has been performed at several venues around King Country including at Bumbershoot Festival of the Arts and Town Hall Seattle. He has also collaborated with several local music groups and theaters, including choreographer Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, on the geopolitical pieces “Farewell: A Fantastical Contemplation on America’s Relationship with China” and “The Mother of Us All.”

Why did Au Young want to bring this particular story to stage?

“When I read Chen’s story in the news, I felt a close connection to this man,” he said. “My family also comes from the same province (Fujian). If my life circumstances had been different, this could have been me. But ‘Stuck Elevator’ is not only a literal story; it’s a figurative metaphor.”

While living in New York as a graduate student, U.S.-born Au Yong often encountered fuzzy boundaries between those perceived as legitimate and those not.

“In certain neighborhoods, I, too, was a delivery man. … I’ve always felt trapped in America,” he said. “I’ve had to ask myself if the ‘American Dream’ aligns with my dream.”

Guāng too wrestles with the idea of the American dream. How does the dream reconcile with his need to be smuggled to the U.S. in a container ship? Other distresses collide with the dream: survivor guilt (his nephew doesn’t survive the transpacific journey), overwhelming debt, loneliness and separation from family, consistent fear of authorities.

“Stuck Elevator” is not simply about one man’s ordeal; it is a commentary on the searing realities faced by many of the U.S.’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents. If “Stuck Elevator” has a weakness, it is that it tries to hold all of these complicated interplays into a cohesive one-act performance. This is less of a criticism on the work itself, but a hard truth that what faces our nation’s undocumented workers cannot be boiled down into easily consumable plot points. This directs the true critique at policymakers who attempt to simplify that which cannot be simplified.

Byron-1
After a tremendous opening, Byron Au Yong hopes Seattle reconsiders”Stuck Elevator.” Photo credit: Kevin Fry.

 

Au Yong hopes that audiences come away from the performance with a deeper curiosity to see a person behind the “deliveryman.”

At the same time, he does not intend for “Stuck Elevator,” or future work to be perceived as merely sympathetic views of immigrants. His next collaboration with Jefferis will be a choral piece based on the 2007 Virginia Tech incident when Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean immigrant, shot and killed dozens of his schoolmates. It will serve as the second piece of a trilogy based on Asian males spotlighted in U.S. media.

 

“Stuck Elevator” completed its month-long run at the ACT in San Francisco on April 28. Its next stop is the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven in late June.

When asked when Seattle audiences may have a chance to see it, Au Yong shared: “‘Stuck Elevator’ is a new piece, and new pieces are riskier for theaters than adaptations. And then there’s ‘Why would anyone want to see a Chinese-American musical theater piece about a deliveryman stuck in an elevator?’

“But it’s magical. I think it will amaze the audience.”

Now that the show has been tested by a successful, critically acclaimed 28-show run in San Francisco, major companies like Seattle Repertory Theatre and Seattle Theatre Group should be excited to bring this daring production to their stages.

 

 

*Writers note: “Stuck Elevator” incorporates supertitles, mostly English-to-Chinese but also the occasional Mandarin-to-English and Spanish-to-English. The supertitles serve to invite non-English-speaking audiences as well as bring to light for the typical subscriber the challenge and opportunity to experience a performance in a different language.

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