BACK STAGE WEST
August 01, 2002
At last working on the
Taper Mainstage, playwright Chay Yew recognizes the thwarted women of Bernarda
by Rob Kendt
there is some good to oppression, ultimately, depending on how you use your
life," said playwright Chay Yew in a recent interview. Raised in
Singapore, Yew, who came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, has headed the Mark
Taper Forum's Asian Theatre Workshop since 1995. He's just now making his
mainstage debut at the Taper with a multicultural adaptation of Lorca's The
House of Bernarda Alba.
That harsh play
about a houseful of women who effectively enslave and destroy one another was
the occasion for Yew's observation about oppression--and the parallels he felt
between Lorca's Spanish Catholic sensibility and the often-rigid sexual mores
of Asian family life. But one gets the sense that the comment applies more generally
to his life and work as a gay Asian-American theatre artist. As the writer of A
Language of Their Own, Red, and Wonderland, and a go-to director for playwrights
from Alec Mapa to Naomi Iizuka, Yew has developed a national reputation for
strong, sometimes stark theatricality, an unsentimental, unblinking empathy for
flawed characters, and the kind of serious-minded playfulness that can't be
In short, while
he's no longer living under the threat of being banned--as happened in
Singapore to his raw, beautiful early play Porcelain--Yew has internalized a knowing, impish,
confidently subversive relationship to authority as surely as Bernarda Alba's
daughters internalize their mother's cruelty.
director Gordon Davidson is no tyrant, but Yew's relationship with his boss
demonstrates his stubbornness. Take the question of why it took so long for Yew--whose
plays have graced the Public Theater in New York, Seattle Rep, La Jolla
Playhouse, even East West Players, just down the street from the Taper--to land
a gig at his home theatre.
I have fought about that from Day One," said Yew. But according to Yew,
the battle has been the reverse of what you might expect. "I'm here
representing Asian-American work and new American plays," said Yew of his
literary manager's job at the Taper. "My job is to open doors for other
artists, so my work should not be on the front burner, because of the conflict
of interest. With other theatres that had similar situations, it was like, 'Oh,
well, I'll give you my play--but the literary manager is a playwright, and I
wonder if he or she would champion the plays, so why do I bother?' Having seen
that on the other side, I decided when I came in, these are some of the
principles that I want to function within. But Gordon gets upset when, say, a
play of mine goes to La Jolla or somewhere."
Indeed, Yew has
seldom lacked theatres eager to mount his work--and whatever tensions this may
create at the Taper, it clearly also releases other tensions.
going to wait for the Taper to do our work," said Yew, one of a handful of
local artists, including Luis Alfaro, John Belluso, and Diane Rodriguez, who
punch the Taper clock but work elsewhere when they can. "So the
relationship has been great for the last seven years. I don't feel like I need
Dad's approval. Once you need Dad's approval, you're fucked--because if he says
no, the relationship changes. The people on staff are fortunate, because we
have other avenues."
This freedom is
in the self-interest not only of the artists but also of the organization, Yew
theatre is basically a town square, where people can come in and create work,
and the square's function is to create the environment. If the artists inside
keep creating for themselves, by themselves, I think it's a vacuum and it will
Bernarda Alba came about through a collaboration with
New York's National Asian-American Theatre Company, for which Yew initially
directed his own adaptation, set in an unspecified Asian Catholic environment
"somewhere between the Philippines and Spain." Director Lisa Peterson
later pitched the project at the Taper, where as resident director she has
mounted Tongue of a Bird,
The Body of Bourne,
done many classics for a while, and Gordon spoke longingly about doing more
classics," recalled Peterson. "And just at the time he was really
feeling that, Chay had done his adaptation in New York, and I thought, Why
don't I talk to Gordon about the Lorca?"
feels her Taper job description is to "advocate new plays by living writers,"
she said she found the Yew/Lorca project irresistible. "The combination of
Chay's voice and Lorca's heartbeat seemed both cool and hot, chaotic and clean--great
journey with the play led her to study Lorca's Arab/Andalusian influences--an
emphasis given a fresh chill of relevance after U.S. forces went to war with
the medievalist, misogynist Taliban last fall. One can't watch the primal scene
of bloodlust that closes Bernarda Alba's second act--in which the women of the house gather to
cheer on the slaughter of a local adulteress--without thinking of recent
headlines about vengeance killings and immolation of women in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Some members of Peterson's multiethnic cast, specifically a
"small but mighty chorus" of black-clad women, wear solemn head
coverings that may strike a chord.
they're wearing is highly influenced by photographs from last fall," said
Peterson. "They're not burqas; they could be women in Greece, Spain, the
Balkans. I wanted the sense of a world culture up there, like Bernarda's house
is a metaphor for the world stage--for any society in which people participate
in their own repression."
Yew was likewise
interested in this resonance, though he was wary of making too close a
intrigued, but I was thinking, Do I have to make it, like, Islamic? That means
you're being literal, and that's dull. If there is a notion that this play was
written some time ago, and there's little hints of the Muslim influence, maybe
the audience will get it, and maybe they will make the journey themselves a
little bit more, by saying, What kind of 'Taliban' do you impose on your lives
or on the people around you? So I think this play can be a little bit more open
than this small little world Bernarda Alba creates."
Still, it's the
small little world that we each create--the cell we build for ourselves--that
is Yew's creative sandbox.
"When I went
into the play, it was the most nostalgic journey for me," recalled Yew
with a kind of clear-eyed fondness. "The idea of longing--you can never
have it, it's over the wall, so you create fantasy worlds, dreams, ambitions. I
got into these characters, and I understood what it was like for me to have
lived in Singapore as a teenager, always wanting something else but you could
never have it. But you find ways. And for me that's interesting, to see how
they can find a way to exist. It's like Miss Julie--I always loved the play, I understand it
implicitly. And Three Sisters. I remember going to Three Sisters in New York and hearing an old Jewish
couple coming out, saying, 'Moscow, Moscow--Jesus, just go to Moscow!' It's a different
In plumbing the
character of Bernarda Alba, who puts a virtual house arrest on her daughters
after their father dies, Yew again came up against his own original problems
said to myself when I read it, Why is she such a fucking bitch? And then I said
to myself, Why was my father the way he was, a disciplinarian? Today we still
don't talk--not in that Brady way. I realized he always wanted the best for me,
but he cannot show weakness. It's his way. So for me the access to Bernarda
was: What if the only thing she wanted for her daughters was a life that was
decent? And the way to keep them pure, good, happy, is to love them in a way
that is strict."
He used another
culturally specific analogy: "Working in Asian-American theatre, I come
across a lot of Korean-American experiences, and a lot of my friends who are
Korean women come from a culture of deep misogyny, so when they come here, it's
like, Oh my God, I have legs, I can run. But their mothers who also come here
are still very harsh to the daughters. So then the question is: I'm sorry, you
were a daughter once, you remember how your family favored the son and
basically treated you like shit--why are you doing this to your daughter?
Because they were taught. Some things you don't question, you just do."
If Yew does
anything unquestioningly, it's not evident at first meeting. He's nothing if
not self-aware, in a constant, curious conversation with others and himself; it
may be no coincidence that one parallel Yew found between Singapore and the
world of Bernarda Alba
was the cheap relief of gossip. Yew may not be the only hyphenate theatre
artist with a love/hate relationship with the gifts of American freedom, but
few are more bluntly self-searching about it.
Havel wrote wonderful plays under Communism," said Yew. "And gay
theatre was great during the period when there was AIDS, because there was a
cause; when people wrote they were passionate, fiery, and then it was like, OK,
we've done that, so what do we do now? Naked Boys Singing--oh, joy.
being banned when I was a kid in Singapore. Writing a play was important. I
miss it in a way because it made me more creative. Doing a play, you could be
jailed. It was not about money, it was not about making a living. When you come
over to this country, it's like, Great, I've made it--this is the land of milk
and honey. And then you realize, I've been hungry for so many years, I see a
banquet in front of me, and I can't eat everything."
It's this hunger
that feeds Yew's art, whether he's adapting to the larger culture or adapting a
play from another culture.
it," he said, relishing the contradictions that inspire him. "It's a
conflict within me."