I first encountered Chay Yew and his play about an alienated gay teenager when the Mu-Lan Theater Company performed Porcelain at London’s Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1992. This intimate venue, known for producing new and experimental plays, including those by American playwrights who had yet to be produced in America, was a perfect location for this lyrical and minimalist “play for voices.” As I write in the book, Porcelain is
presented on a bare stage in thirty fragmented scenes that shift in time, place, and perspective. Four white male actors dressed in black are “Voices” who act as a protean chorus, creating sound effects, painting stage pictures with poetic phrases, and playing a variety of incidental roles and a few supporting characters. The fifth member of the cast is an Asian actor dressed in white playing John Lee, a London teenager who is under arrest for murder after being discovered in a public restroom crying over the dead body of his lover, Will.
At the time, I had never seen a play that focused on a young, gay, working-class Asian immigrant, exploring the intersections of gender, sexuality, class, race, and nationality. So while I, not so far removed from my own teenaged feelings of queer alienation, identified with John Lee, I also recognized that Yew was opening my eyes to experiences quite different from my own.
Furthermore, the play’s fragmented and multi-layered narrative, which includes allusions to Madame Butterfly and Carmen, and minimalist theatrical presentation allowed my imagination to create a variety of different perspectives, constantly shifting as the play both sought and subverted a rational “explanation” for John Lee’s crime-of-passion murder.
I think one reason why this extraordinary play might remain unknown to some of my respondents is that it never had a major production in New York City. After its premiere in England, where it won the London Fringe Award for Best Play, Porcelain received its American premiere at the Burbage Theatre in Los Angeles in 1993, with subsequent productions around the United States, including at theaters in Dallas; San Francisco; Washington, DC; Chicago; San Diego; Boston; Seattle; and Columbus, Ohio. As part of Yew’s Whitelands Trilogy, the East West Players of Los Angeles mounted a major production of Porcelain in 1996 starring Alec Mapa. The script was published in John Clum’s anthology Staging Gay Lives (1996) and then in a trade paperback from Grove Press, Porcelain and A Language of Their Own: Two Plays (1997).
Chay Yew has had other successes in New York, both as a playwright (A Language of Their Own, Red) and as a director (Durango, My Manana Comes). Since 2011, he’s also served as the Artistic Director of the prestigious Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago. And Porcelain continues to be produced around the US; most recently, I noticed a casting call for an upcoming production at Chicago’s Prologue Theatre Company.
Of course, plays do not need to be produced in New York City in order to be successful. But since this is the community in which I happen to live and work, I’m glad whenever colleagues and professional acquaintances in the New York theatre scene take an interest in this early work by a major theatre artist. And I’ll be thrilled if—or, more optimistically, when--Porcelain finally receives a major production in New York.