Stuck in Elevator, No Way Out

New opera about immigrants’ trapped sense
By Caroline Li

Xike Xin photo by Jean-StephaneIn the spring of 2005, Ming Kuang Chen, a 35-year-old Chinese immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally, became stuck in a broken elevator in a Bronx high-rise apartment building after making a delivery for the Happy Dragon Chinese restaurant.

Three days later, firefighters who were sent to fix the elevator found Chen. The deliveryman emerged dehydrated and fatigued from behind the elevator door to a crowd of reporters, bright news cameras and a surprised mayor who said he was lucky to be alive.

After the ordeal, Chen kept a low profile, for fear of being deported. But his story made a lasting impression on Seattle composer Byron Au Yong, who began turning the immigrant’s survival story into a one-man opera called “Stuck Elevator: The Super-Heroic Stationary Journey of Ming Kuang Chen.”

“When I lived in the East Village, I would pass by the Chinese take-out place every day. I’d see the delivery guys get on their bicycles and brave the streets,” Au Yong recalls in a recent interview with the Northwest Asian Weekly. “It made me realize the gradations of being poor. Here, I thought I was surviving on very little living in an efficiency studio. … At least I had a place to myself. At least I had a job in an office. At least I didn’t rely on tips.”

Chen had been working at the Chinese restaurant to pay off his $60,000 debt to smugglers who had snuck him into the country.

Au Yong said his life was “very different from the Chinese take-out guys who rode their bikes in the middle of the traffic with plastic bags of food. My debt was for graduate school. Theirs was to be in this country.”

In Stuck Elevator, which plays June 18-19 at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson, Chen is played by Xike Xin. Au Yong received the Award for Innovation from 4Culture, along with a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, for the development of Stuck Elevator.

During those three days he was stuck, Chen repeatedly cried out for help and pushed the emergency button in the elevator. The security camera and alarm system in the elevator were working, according to news reports. But security officers told police they never heard nor saw Chen.

The irony and symbolism in Stuck Elevator is no coincidence.

“Being invisible is the same situation that faces so many undocumented immigrants,” said librettist Aaron Jafferis. “Like Chen, (immigrants) are feeding the country … and when he got stuck, he had no food himself. He had already delivered the food.”

For Jafferis, a hip-hop lyricist and “rap slam” champion, Stuck Elevator is his first time writing an opera, but he sees nothing foreign about it. “One of the things that separates an opera from a musical is that everything is sung. That appealed to me as a lyricist, that I’d be able to write everything in lyrics,” he said.

In the show, the character of Chen sings a song called “Disappear” while he waits in the elevator. He ponders why no one has found him, when he will be missed and how he exists only because his wife and son need him.

“I think viewers will relate to Chen’s emotions and hopes and have a deeper understanding of the hardships and risks people still take to live and work in this country,” said the show’s costume designer, Michelle Kumata, a fourth-generation Asian American. “I relate Chen’s story to my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories of their struggles immigrating, working and surviving in the States in the early 1900s, and the difficulties with culture, racism and language,” she said. “Chen’s story shows that not much has changed in the present day.”

The production is basically a one-person show set in one place, but Kumata said Chen’s state of mind transforms while he is in the elevator and his thoughts are played out on stage, including a vision of his son as an adult lawyer.

Still in the final rewrite stage, Stuck Elevator runs about 80 minutes long. There may be no better place in town for the production than the Theatre Off Jackson, a small, intimate venue that keeps the audience to limited number so you’ll be able to experience Chen’s emotions in the elevator as if you were in there with him.

“Stuck Elevator: The Super-Heroic Stationary Journey of Ming Kuang Chen” plays June 18-19 at 8 p.m. at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle. Tickets cost $10-$15.

Copyright 2007 Northwest Asian Weekly