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C H A Y   Y E W

Chay Yew, NWAAT's Artistic Director


By Gayle Gupit-Mayor
NW Asian Weekly

Critically acclaimed Asian American playwright, Chay Yew is not new to controversy. The censorship board in his native land, Singapore initially banned his first play in 1989 because the gay character acted realistically “too sympathetic and too straight-looking.” When Yew wrote Porcelain as his graduate thesis movie script at Boston University, no one on campus wanted to audition for the project because of its gay theme. Eventually, after spending all his money “clubbing and partying,” Porcelain resurfaced when Yew wrote and re-adapted it for five chairs during his post as resident playwright at a London-based Asian theatre company. Needless to say, it was a hit and the play was bestowed the prestigious London Fringe Award for Best Play.

Porcelain is a powerful and provocative play with an arresting combination of artistry and controversy. John Lee, a 19-year-old gay Chinese man surrounded by racism and homophobia, portrayed by Ray Tagavilla, confesses to shooting his lover in a public lavatory in London. Exploring the battlegrounds, both internal and external, where matters of the heart conflict with the barriers of race and sexuality, the play dissects the crime through a prism of conflicting voices…a series of verbal tableaux…voices that are portrayed by “Actors 1, 2, 3 & 4,” Gavin Cummins, Brandon Whitehead, Conor Duffy and P. Adam Walsh. The play is skillfully directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, currently a faculty member of the University of Washington School of Drama and was the Artistic Director for Seattle’s Ethnic Cultural Theatre (ECT) until 1998. Curtis-Newton’s directing career include productions such as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Neat, Santos and Santos, Stevedore, Blood Knot, Chain and Hiro. 

Interestingly enough, Yew feels uncomfortable revisiting the play that he wrote back in his youth. “I guess I still see the vestiges of an awkward, alienated Asian gay teenager who wrote the play.” Stabbing thoughts still run rampant in his mind, “Am I still that Asian guy who is standing all alone at the backwalls of the world?” “How far have I come?” “Am I still that same person?” “Am I still that lonely?” “Am I cool with being a realized Asian-American?” “Why does that character still make me sad?” “Why is the pain still so fresh?”

Yew provides a simple solution to these unanswered questions hovering in his head. “I try not to see the play.” What he does find “heartening,” is when he is approached by people who have seen or read the play during a college class to let him know how the play has affected them and made them feel less alone. “For me, I am glad that at least Porcelain may have given these people a feeling that they were not alone in their feelings as I was when I was younger.”

Yew’s complicated and true-to-life themes sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. When asked how Asian-Americans regard his work, Yew finds that Asian-Americans are the most critical. “I write with a brutal sense of honesty and that portrait is never easy, never tidy.” But luckily and to his surprise, “The support and encouragement from all corners of the Asian-American community in this country has been forthcoming. I am secretly pleased that most Asian-American audiences have embraced the work that I have done as a playwright, director and producer…but I hope there will be more I can offer to the Asian-American communities in and out of Seattle in terms of theatre. We need our voices heard and our stories told - they are not told by mainstream theatres that purportedly call themselves “American.” We also need the support from the Asian-American community in the theatre, no matter how truthful and painful and celebratory the play or performance is. After all, it’s our lives, isn’t it?”

Born of Chinese parents and raised in Singapore, it was no surprise that Yew, who grew up with American pop culture, decided at age 16 to attend Pepperdine University after his father suggested that he study abroad. “I thought, get killed or lead a beach life, so I went to Los Angeles,” Yew remarked. Nowadays, “home” to Yew is both Seattle and Los Angeles. But, according to Yew, “The one place I always feel at home is in the theatre.”

Chay Yew, 35, has assumed Artistic Directorship at the Northwest Asian American Theatre while maintaining his directorship at the Mark Taper Forum’s Asian Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles. He has written several plays which include A Language of Their Own, Red, Wonderland and A Beautiful Country; his other works include Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, (adaptation) and Home: Places Between Asia and America (performance). He has directed several plays all over the country and in Singapore where he is currently directing Red as of this writing. Yew has also been the recipient of several prestigious awards for his prolific contributions to theatre.

What are his future plans for the Northwest Asian American Theatre? “With the new season, I am hoping that Northwest Asian American Theatre will start producing new and meaningful Asian-American theatre works: both plays and performances. I am proud to include several world premieres in this season: such as Elizabeth Wong’s China Doll on the life of famed Asian-American Hollywood actress, Anna Mae Wong, and Sung Rno’s (who wrote Cleveland Raining) Wave, an adaptation of the Greek myth Medea, which I commissioned at the Taper several years ago. I am also excited about creating a parallel season called the The Black Box, in which we also produce world and regional premieres of theatre work of color as I have always strongly felt the absence of the group theatre and the Alice B. Theatre, which used to partner with us at the Theatre Off Jackson. Some of these works include our Three Medeas Project (one as mentioned above) with Cherrie Moraga’s The Hungry Woman: The Mexican Medea and Silas Jones’s African-American American Medea, a McArthur “Genius” Award winner; Luis Alfaro’s performance Drive By Chignon, and local performer David Schmader’s Straight that we produced earlier this year to great reviews. I think it’s important to say that the birth of the Black Box will not create fewer opportunities for Asian-American work at NWAAT. It is my hope that the intercultural exchange of ideas and creativity can take place right here in our theatre. I also hope to open the doors of NWAAT to more theatre artists I have long admired in the Puget Sound. You definitely see a very challenging season of theatre work at NWAAT/The Black Box. It will not always be successful, but it will definitely be an evening to remember.”


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