News Column

New Haven poet-playwright's 'Stuck Elevator' returns to International Festival of Art & Ideas

June 15, 2013

YellowBrix

June 15--NEW HAVEN >> No doubt once or twice in life, one has had that adrenaline-surging experience of being stuck in an elevator, but the rescue certainly alleviated whatever fears and claustrophobia surrounded the episode.

Not so in the "comic-rap, scrap-metal-musical" "Stuck Elevator," by New Haven's Aaron Jafferis, with music by Byron Au Yong, which returns to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas for 12 performances, starting Thursday at 8 p.m. on Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre, through June 29.

The show workshopped here in 2010, under the auspices of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, and is now all grown up, having premiered in San Francisco in April at the American Conservatory Theatre. It is produced by Thomas O. Kriegsmann of ArKtype, and is presented here in association with Long Wharf.

It's based on the 2005 ripped-from-the-headlines true and quite topical story of a young Chinese restaurant delivery man, who becomes trapped in an elevator in the Bronx for 81 hours. Guang's panic that no one will rescue him is almost surpassed by his fear that when they do, his undocumented status will be revealed, which is what eventually happened in reality, and has forced him to go into hiding.

"San Francisco was a great place to premiere the show," says Jafferis, "both because there's a great amount of interest in it and the issues the show raises about immigrant labor, etc., and art in general that deals with pressing social issues. But there's also a huge Asian- and Chinese-American community and Latino community, so the community really came out and supported it."

Jafferis, an award-winning hip-hop poet and playwright who has used rap and poetry to reach and bring theater arts to young people here and around the country, says they "never really decided we're going to use a particular genre of music.

"I come from the world of hip-hop theater. Byron comes from the world of new music, classical music, strange music theater, some Asian-influenced music, so it made sense, because our main character is someone who is dislocated, in a way, from his culture, language, country and music in the middle of the Bronx.

"It made sense for us to collide our very different musical styles, and, in particular, to play with how if our main character had a more operatic style, or a sung mix of opera, classical, musical theater and Asian-influenced sound that is Byron's world ... mixed with bringing the hip-hop world of the Bronx in with co-deliveryman Marco, who's from Mexico, but has been in the Bronx a long time, and ultimately the genres begin to mix."

With so much care given to this work over so long, when asked if he felt it was finally finished, Jafferis said, "That's a good question. I definitely thought it was going to feel finished at ACT, and because it was the first time we were actually staging it, I learned a ton of things just watching the performance that I hadn't been able to learn in countless years of workshop proceedings.

"So that's a big reason why we're doing rewrites right now. I feel it makes sense for me to be struggling with this for seven years of my life, because we're all struggling with it. As a country we're struggling. I would be worrying about issues of immigration anyway, so for me it feels much more healthy to do something more personal with it, something where I can at least question my own thinking on issues and have other people question their own, or me.

"To come back to the piece over and over has helped keep me sane living in this very divided and divisive country, and also because the piece tries to have a ton of fun and be really silly and creative, because Guang needs those things to be able to survive ... but it's not been tiresome for me, because I need wacky silliness in the middle of my attempts at deep thought," he says with a soft laugh.

That juxtaposition of theater styles by the two artists fits varying times of Guang's entrapment, from the first moments of a hoped-for imminent rescue to the desperation and physical toll that causes Guang to hallucinate a cast of visiting characters.

Though he is rescued, Jafferis notes, "It certainly wasn't a happy ending, because his immigration status was revealed to the press. Basically, he went underground and left his job," which he had taken to pay off $60,000 in student loans. "The last we heard, he was moving to Philadelphia and had a hard time keeping his job because of post-traumatic stress disorder."

That situation, says Jafferis, "allows us to have a provocative ending, because it raises the question, even if he does get unstuck from the elevator, in what ways will he be stuck in this country?

"That's the thing that appealed to Byron and I -- the way his experience showed all these different ways in which immigrants can be trapped and away from their families and language-wise, sometimes in immigration detention centers, prisons and in some ways become invisible."

The men, who first met in a musical theater writing program taught by Tony Award-winning William Finn ("Falsettos," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ") at The Tisch School for the Arts at New York University, started working on the piece in 2007 in Au Yong's hometown of Seattle. After a couple of readings over several years in New York, where they live, it was noticed by Yale Institute for Music Theatre.

Jafferis says casting was difficult as they sought actors whose skill set needed to include acting, rapping, singing "very difficult" music, dancing "and in some cases, speaking either Chinese or Spanish as well as English -- a challenge," he says.

The cast includes opera singer Julius Ahn as Guang ("Madame Butterfly," Nashville Opera, "Turandot," Seattle Opera), and an ensemble that plays multiple roles: Raymond J. Lee, Marie-France Arcilla, Joel Perez and Francis Jue, all of whom have New York theater credentials.

"Everyone in the cast is experienced and amazing," he says.

They will be accompanied by a live band of four musicians, a cellist, violinist, Au Yong on the piano -- and a percussionist who plays, among some other funky things, a bicycle wheel. An exhibit of photographs, curated by Stephen Kobasa of The Institute Library, which depicts New Haven's immigrant life movement, will be on display in the lobby throughout the show's run.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, June 25, 27, 28, 2 and 8 p.m. June 22, 26, 29 and 2 p.m. June 23. Tickets are $35 and $45, available at artidea.org, the LWT box office, 203-787-4282, or Shubert Theater box office, 203-562-5666.

Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672.

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(c)2013 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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