Thoughts on "Stuck Elevator" – a one-man operatic musical

18 Sep

*may be updated later as more thoughts come as I digest*

**Spoilers Ahead! Be warned.**

At first glance, it’s a simple story. A Chinese delivery man gets stuck in an elevator after his last delivery of the night. But this, my friends, is a one-man operatic musical.

Based on the story of Ming Kuang Chen, “Stuck Elevator”, composed by Byron Au Yong and written (libretto) by Aaron Jafferis (artists-in-residence for the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU) is a journey through the three days our psuedo-superhero, Kuang, is stuck in an elevator, hungry, waiting for help. On a deeper level, it works as a metaphor for the invisibility of undocumented Chinese workers in American society and, through the story of one man, examines how identity, societal position, and a yearning for home and family are constantly in negotiation and in tension.

I had the privilege of seeing “Stuck Elevator” workshopped tonight at the brand new Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) in Chinatown. What a fitting place for the premiere workshop of this piece. Packed house. Actor Stephen Eng performed the part of Kuang. And there was a live orchestral group as well that consisted of cello, violin, and percussion.

Workshops are generally meant to be for works-in-progress and to provide the creators with feedback, which we did, and which I will continue to do here (in hopes that Byron and Aaron read this at some point). I feel like this piece is really close. Anyway, here are some of my thoughts, categorized somewhat loosely:

Great mix of Chinese traditional music, Western music, and a contemporary/experimental style. It organically melds the different musical styles so you don’t really notice them. Very enjoyable listen, with catchy tunes that stick in your head long after you leave the show. The most important thing about the music is that while it’s certainly not conventional (original stuff here, people), it’s accessible. It pushes boundaries, yet doesn’t alienate the audience.

This aspect is particularly interesting. Reminded me a bit of the Joy Luck Club, or Kiterunner, in that, through the process of allowing a character for whom English does not come easily (or, in Kuang’s case, almost at all), it is an ironic process of un-Othering the Other (in this case, a Chinese delivery man, a person who would otherwise be put in the position of a foreigner in America), and allowing the audience to fully relate to his plight.
I did find that understanding Chinese makes the script very poignant.

Symbolism and Politicism:
Hugely present. The metaphor of Kuang as a food that America swallowed, and the elevator as a metaphor for the belly of America from which he cannot escape (for shame of going back to his country) is sustained throughout the show. The invisibility of his situation, and the fact that no one could hear/find/SEE him, merely emphasizes how these service workers, who more often than not are undocumented immigrants who come to America in hopes of a better life, are unseen in our society. They don’t matter. There’s a double meaning here too – they don’t really exist – they don’t have papers, and in our paper-obsessed society (where nothing is real unless it’s “on paper”, as Derrida talks about in “Paper Machine”), they’re not really here. So, in essence, they’re invisible both in the eyes of our official system, as well as in the unofficial day to day happenings in society. This speaks to a much greater, ongoing issue of Chinese in America and the foreignness of people with Asian face, whether they are from Asia or born in America.

Most Memorable Moments for me (I apologize if I mis-describe the titles):

The hunger piece:
Reminiscent of spoken word, this piece involves a rhythmic whispering in the background with Kuang talking over it. This piece is one of the very few moments in the show where anger is felt. It’s a powerful piece, emphasizing the invisibility and non-acknowledgment of Chinese undocumented workers in America, but how important they are in the service sector of New York.

Takeout Man:
A catchy tune about Kuang envisioning himself as a superhero. The only thing I would say about this is that, unlike the other songs, this one repeats the chorus around 4 times.
Thank You – Kuang talks to various Chinese dishes (orange beef, General Tso’s chicken, etc) and thanks them for making him money. This is the first song of the show, and there is a reprisal near the end. It nicely bookends the show, in which we see Kuang slowly become less human (yet, at the same time, less of an Other) – personifying food, dehumanizing Kuang, bringing them to a plane of synonymy.

Peeing Himself – to me, this is the seminal moment of Kuang’s dehumanization. And Kuang struggles with holding it in, to hold on to his humanity.


The ending requires its own section, since we ended up having a discussion about this during the Q&A. The show ends with the light showing Kuang laying on the ground after having peed and stabbed himself, hungry, thirsty, unheard, and generally invisible. An audience member made the comment that he would have liked to see a “Hollywood ending” – or rather an ending where Kuang is not positioned in such a defeated posture (ambiguity notwithstanding). He was supported by another audience member who would have liked to hear jingling or elevator bells or something to indicate that there is hope. Everyone was in agreement that we don’t necessarily have to see the doors open. But there was something this side of the debated wanted to keep alive – hope. Hope was something Kuang kept alive throughout the show, and I understand the desire to see that hope linger long after the curtain is drawn.

But I disagree with that, and I will use the idea of manufactured consent (of course – my favorite buzz word) to explain why I feel like the ending works as is. Throughout the show, the story allows the English speaking audience (read: American audience) to relate to Kuang, our protagonist (certainly an important positioning even as a one-man show), as a real, three-dimensional person. It allows us to feel what he feels, to know his thoughts and dreams, to experience his yearning for his family, his shame at the thought of returning to China without honor. He becomes visible to us – we see him, not only on a mental and emotional level, but on a physical level. He’s present in our minds and eyes. This is a process of un-Othering the Other – to make him less foreign to us. He becomes an Us – part of the in-crowd.

I understand wanting an ending that doesn’t seem so hopeless, but I fear any sort of “transcendent” or “hopefulness” would blind us to the reality of the plight of Chinese immigrants in America. We would leave the theatre feeling, well, hopeful. And that’s not always the case with these Chinese immigrants. Leaving the theatre hopeful, more content than one would with the current despairing ending, will lead to the feeling that everything will be ok – because we’re America, of course. What’s that? I like to call it Manufactured Consent (I believe Gramsci was the first to use the idea broadly, Chomsky wrote a book with that title, and Adorno and Horkheimer used it to lament pop culture), or false contentment. Because people who are content do not revolt or rebel, and hence keep those in power IN power. This is why we like happy endings. We have the feeling that everything will be ok. We feel less pain, less violence.

Having Kuang placed in such a defeated position at the end is heartbreaking. It’s a blow to the stomach. All that hope he had might all be gone. As idealistic as this may sound, but perhaps that violence to our psyche, that heartbreak, that pain, is the push we need to affect change, to bring awareness to these undocumented Chinese immigrants, to bring awareness to the invisibility of the Asian face in American society, to not let our history of Asians in America be written as merely “the absence of Asians in American history.” (something I believe Ronald Takaki said, but I’m a bit too tired to look it up right now)

I did, however, like Jack’s suggestion that the doors can open at the end and the next Chinese delivery man steps in as Kuang leaves, showing that the vicious cycle only repeats itself.

(disclaimer: all progress being made in other directions and vectors notwithstanding)

All in all, I think this is going to be something well worth seeing. I’m excited to see how this will evolve over the next few months. The next workshop will be in November.

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Posted by on September 18, 2009 in Uncategorized


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