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Yew, Chay (b. 1965)  
 
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Critically acclaimed Asian-American playwright Chay Yew has consistently produced provocative drama addressing issues of racism, , and censorship. Yew strives, not only in his own plays but also in directing theatrical works of others, to break down stereotypes and stimulate dialogue about the way we live today. As a result, he has come to be regarded by many as an activist as well as a leading theatrical artist.

Of Chinese ancestry, Chay Yew was born in Singapore in late 1965. During his youth he became entranced with the American popular culture that was flooding into Malaysia at the time. He moved to the United States when he was 16 to begin undergraduate work at Pepperdine University in Malibu. Images of California and its beaches from television and movies had filled his head long before he arrived.

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At Pepperdine, Yew learned one of his first lessons about casting biases in American theater productions: he auditioned for a role and was summarily rejected because he was Asian. Yew recalls letting the (Caucasian) professor know what he thought of the rejection, exclaiming, "You think I'm going to be playing The King and I for the rest of my life? No way."

Yew moved on to Boston University, where he earned an M.F.A. in communications. Even in the presumably more open environment of Boston, Yew was to learn yet another lesson in the realities of American casting practices. He had read a newspaper article about arrests of men having sex in campus rest rooms and decided to develop the events into a television script for his thesis project. This time his professors were not the ones to stymie his plans; Yew found that nobody would audition for the roles: gay themes, especially those involving sex in bathrooms, were too hot to handle for actors beginning their careers.

Returning to Singapore in 1988, Yew wrote his first play for TheatreWorks there. As If He Hears revolves around a heterosexual businessman who contracts HIV on a trip to Thailand and the help he receives from a gay Malaysian social worker when he discovers his HIV-status. Since Yew viewed the play as topical and objective, he was surprised when government censors banned it. Presumably its sympathetic and direct portrayal of the gay social worker was not in line with what the government would allow.

Yew eventually revised As If He Hears so that it still made its points but slid by the censors. The key was to excise explicit references to the social worker's sexuality and build them in (non-written) stage directions. Yew has said that the experience with homegrown censorship taught him how to write between the lines and when it was wise to do so.

Those vivid early encounters with racism, homophobia, and censorship did not scare Yew away from potentially controversial subject matter. When he was a playwright-in-residence at Mu-Lan Theatre in London in the early 1990s, he rewrote his thesis project as a play, changing the locale from Boston to London.

Porcelain (1992) retraces the events leading up to a crime of passion, when John Lee, a 19-year-old Chinese student, shoots his working-class Caucasian lover in the same lavatory where they first met and began their sexual relationship. Lee is caught in a classic double-bind as a gay Anglo-Asian seeking a sense of belonging in London: he is marginalized or ignored by English gay men and his tradition-bound family would disown him if he came out to them. Desperate for acceptance and love, he clings to the sexual connection with his casual lover as his salvation and tries to force it into something more permanent. When the lover retreats from any real commitment, John Lee's desperation turns to murderous rage.

To tell this story, Yew constructed a collage of spoken tabloid headlines ("Homo Toilet Sex Murder!"), moving soliloquies, and excerpted media interviews. The result is an elegant, spare, and powerful portrait of love and longing, denial and disaster over the course of the doomed relationship.

Porcelain, with its hot-button issues of race, transgressive sex, and violence, proved irresistible to audiences in London. It earned Yew his first widespread notice, played to sold-out houses, and won the 1993 London Fringe Award for Best Play. Ironically, however, Yew finds Porcelain difficult to watch now. The central character's pain, which he captured so masterfully, still affects him deeply. The play also reminds him of an angrier period in his life, when his father (who apologized years later) refused to discuss his homosexuality and would not attend performances of his plays.

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