BROADWAY WORLD by Student Blogger: Rosanna Gao Co-written by Iris Liu March 16, 2022
On March 12th at eight in the evening, the Munsey Park Auditorium hosted a musical performance named Illegal: A New Musical by theater graduates of Yale University. With Skyler Chin as its writer, Olivia Facini as its producer, Sita Sunil as its co-composer, Iris Liu as the student producer, and Annissa Gao as the photographer. The show gathered more than 1,000 audience members from 3/11 to 3/12 and received an uproaring reaction from its audience who gave standing ovations for both days of the performance.
Congresswoman Grace Meng also attended the performance on March 12th with her family and awarded Skyler Chin’s outstanding performance with the nomination of 3/12 as “Skyler Chin Day”. She said, “It touches me that young Chinese American students are making a production based on our culture. They are trying to teach America Chinese-American history, and that is so important.”
Illegal: A New Musical is a historical fiction, rap-rock musical that utilizes a humorous approach to portray the story of the first “Illegal” Chinese-American citizens during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Inspired by the 1923 detainment and interrogation of Skyler’s grandfather on Angel Island, Illegal confronts the history of anti-Asian prejudice that Chinese Americans experienced during the Chinese Exclusion era and that many still face a century later.
“History always repeats itself. Looking around us, the hatred, violence, and rejection towards Chinese Americans are still ongoing. I hope this musical will draw attention to the unfair treatment that Chinese Americans have been subjected to, especially during this age when such injustices are still predominant in our daily lives. This is the reason why I wanted to bring Illegal to the spotlight.” Iris reflected at the beginning of the performance.
The Chinese American community continues to remain an “outsider” to many. To prevent the history of prejudice and violence from repeating, we need to remember our history, to actively speak out against bias and brutality. Only by speaking out can the American society begin to pay attention to the needs and rights of the Asian American community
If you are interested in supporting the timely message behind this musical, please visit the production’s website. If you are interested in hosting this musical in your community, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Skyler through the information listed on the website.
How To Fight Against Stereotypes in Theatre: Skyler Chin’s “Illegal” Dream Come True
Dramatics Magazine By Rosanna Gao and Brayden Chein February 28, 2022
Yale graduate Skyler Chin has taken the fight against stereotypes in theatre personally. Inspired by his internship experiences at Angel Island, Skyler wrote Illegal, a creative and powerful rap-rock musical about the history of Asian-American immigrants. He hopes Illegal helps shine the light of understanding on the often untold history of Asian immigrants. The expressive lyrics and dynamic score of Illegal does what theatre does best: educate while entertaining!
Skyler was initially inspired by his grandparents’ stories of immigrating to the U.S. during the Chinese Exclusion era in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Discover more about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Plus, his late father had a deep kung fu practice that influenced him, so Skyler combined these experiences with his self-taught musical skills to create Illegal. The final impetus to the musical’s creation was Skyler’s experiences at Angel Island combined with his passion to fight against stereotypes in theatre. Skyler’s historical-fiction narrative on immigrants detained on Angel Island has come into the world at an ideal and critical time.
USING IMMIGRANTS’ OWN WORDS TO FIGHT AGAINST STEREOTYPES IN THEATRE
During his internship with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) in San Francisco, Skyler read the book Island by Judy Yung (1980, University of Washington Press). Island is a compilation of poetry originally found carved into the walls at Angel Island by Chinese immigrants detained there to try and uphold U.S. exclusion laws. Skyler says, “The poems had such moving and emotional lyrics, but what stood out to me was that they weren’t limited to sadness and grieving. These immigrant poets also expressed determination, perseverance, and even the furious desire to exact revenge and burn the immigration station down. Their words conveyed a fighting spirit that I was never taught about in American history. I was moved to write them into a song, which became the opener of the musical.
“Illegal is based on just one family’s story, but I hope to tell a piece of Asian-American history through songs that capture the spirit and resolve of those who went through Angel Island. Given the anti-Asian hate we’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope shows like Illegal can help humanize us, instill empathy, and help to dismantle the perpetual foreigner myth as well as the model minority myth that fuel the attacks.
“I also want to inspire other kids to tell their stories. I met a class of 3rd-grade students in Oakland’s Chinatown who performed our uplifting song “Keep Dreaming” as part of their Martin Luther King Jr. Day festival. I was so touched by their rendition! I told them I hope they are inspired to keep dreaming, to write shows of their own, and to tell their stories.”
TAKING ACTION WHEN HISTORY REPEATED ITSELF
“I originally wrote Illegal at Yale in 2019, in response to the previous federal administration’s family separations, Muslim ban, border wall, attempts to repeal birthright citizenship…the list goes on. These policies echoed the anti-Asian immigration laws from 140 years ago, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act. For instance, my grandfather was separated from his parents at age 10 years, despite being a legal immigrant. He was detained in bad conditions on Angel Island for months during 1923. I saw these kinds of detentions happening again to immigrants in 2019. I felt like history was repeating itself!
“Maybe part of why this was happening again was because people weren’t taught about these same kinds of events in our country’s past? I wanted to help educate others by telling my family’s story. And even now in 2022, we’re seeing states banning real history education and critical race theory, both of which I needed to understand to write this musical.”
CHARACTERS DRAWN FROM REAL LIFE
“I relate most to the ‘paper son’ character Slim Chin,” Skyler says. “He’s inspired by one of my grandfathers, who was an illegal immigrant living in NYC Chinatown under the paper name Wong. Originally, he did not want my last name to be his real name Chin because he thought it would endanger our family. Writing the character Slim Chin helped me reclaim that history and shine light on my grandfather’s life and secret identity.
“I also really relate to the Chinese American interpreter, Carter Lee, as she struggles with her identity being pegged as a perpetual foreigner even though she was born in America. And there’s our heroine Kee Lin who loves kung fu and is always fighting for what she believes in. Her rap style is influenced by Wing Chun, and I identify with her the most musically.”
WHAT’S NEXT & HOW READERS CAN HELP
“My collaborators, Olivia Facini and Sita Sunil, and I are rehearsing with a professional all-AAPI cast to tour high schools and organizations in the NYC area and around the nation to perform Illegal. So far, we’re planning visits to Manhasset School District, Flushing Town Hall, Angel Island, The Chinese Historical Society of America, Queens Public Library, and more! We were named semi-finalists for the Eugene O’Neill National Musical Theater Conference, and have been working with our community partners, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) to plan exciting educational programming this year.
“We are building interest and raising funds for a professional production in 2022 of Illegal in recognition of the 140th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. We deeply appreciate any help with fundraising, performance opportunities, donations, connections to organizations and/or people who would be interested in getting involved. Please reach out to us with the contact information below!” ♦
Rosanna Gao is a 2022 International Thespian Officer and a passionate advocate of BIPOC representation within the arts. She is currently a rising senior at Great Neck South High School and is excited by the prospect of combining her passions for musical theatre, social impact, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship through opportunities within the performing arts industry. Connect with Rosanna.
Brayden Chein, is currently a junior at Great Neck South High. He loves being a part of theatre at his school and has performed in A Chorus Line (Richie Walters), Grease (Roger), and is part of the production of Così fan tutte (Guglielmo). In his free time, he explores data science and manages the ChamberDischord server. Connect with Brayden at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s commencement season! Sampan gives a special shout-out to graduates from colleges in New England actively involved in storytelling. This includes stories about the Asian American experience — as authors, filmmakers, journalists, creative and performing artists — fields not known for job security and financial stability. Bravo to them for taking the leap, so America’s cultural products more accurately reflect our diversity. Through them, future generations will have mentors and greater opportunities.
Name: Skyler Chin Hometown: New Hyde Park, New York School, major: Yale University, environmental studies and energy studies Proudest college moment: My proudest college moment was in April, performing three sold-out shows of “Illegal: A New Musical,” that I spent a good part of my senior year writing, composing and producing.
I was inspired by stories about family members being detained on Angel Island, taking paper names, living in New York City’s Chinatown. Researching these under-represented stories taught me that incredible material is right there if you look for it; all I had to do was make it rhyme in English. Working with the supremely talented pan-Asian American cast showed me that making compelling art carries the responsibility of lifting others up. I seek to carve out a space for untold stories and diverse performers to shine.
Other college highlights included making the individual NCAA fencing championships, completing thesis research on Legionnaires’ disease, and leading an Office of Sustainability student team for two years.
Plans: I’m seeking entertainment, business or environmental jobs while continuing creative projects – writing music, musicals, comedy and martial arts stories, developing and workshopping “Illegal.” I’m mixing the cast album as we speak!
This post is also available in: Chinese About Linda Chin 陳婉娉 Linda Chin covers the arts beat for Sampan. 陳婉娉是舢舨報紙戲劇記者。
“Jook songs” — a wordplay on jook-sing, a Cantonese term for Chinese Americans — is the first song in the musical “Illegal” and a hybrid word that encapsulates what it means to be Chinese and American. Last summer, Skyler Chin ’19 was inspired to write a jook song of his own after reading poetry by Angel Island detainees. What was a single song has since bloomed into a fully fledged passion project, a 26-song musical about Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The musical “Illegal,” is directed by Olivia Facini ’19 and features a talented seven-person cast: Skyler Chin ’19, Sophia Dai ’20, Jason Kim ’21, Kathy Min ’21, Ananya Parthasarathy ’20, Jisu Sheen ’20 and Daniel Flesch ’19. It is a musical blending rap and spoken word, an original combination of genres that parallels the theme of dual identity throughout the play. “Illegal,” inspired by the real experiences of Chin’s grandparents, follows the immigration journey of several young Chinese immigrants attempting to enter San Francisco through Angel Island at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923. The script is a balance of lighted-hearted humor and powerful emotion, and is always heavy with meaning: “Illegal” asks the timely and timeless question, ‘What does it take to be(come) American?’”
Illuminating Ellis Island’s lesser known West Coast counterpart, Angel Island, Chin tells history with his own twist. By writing and performing “Illegal,” Chin seeks to “carve out a space for untold stories and diverse performers to shine.” He takes Chinese stories into his own hands, blurring the line between history and fiction. Though the characters are fictitious, they were inspired by Chin’s family as well as the countless immigrants who were detained, dehumanized and deported at Angel Island, but who were never properly recorded in history.
Laced within the story are shocking details of experiences at Angel Island. The musical portrays the lengths that immigrants went through to pass inspections that were rigged against them: detainees endured violating physicals, “paper sons” who borrowed identities memorized coaching books filled with details of other people’s lives and the few women who attempted to immigrate were all assumed to be prostitutes. Each disturbing “fun fact” is delivered through enthusiastic song; the musical entertains nonstop, all while serving biting criticism of the inhumane methods employed at Angel Island to push out Chinese immigrants.
In addition to strong messages imparted in rhymes, the implications of this musical’s very existence cannot be lost. The entire conception of “Illegal,” from its inspiration by Chin’s grandparents in 1923 to its performance at Yale in 2019, is a unique product of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the Chinese diaspora. Central elements of the musical, including its setting on the West Coast and references to the invention of boba, nod to both historical and contemporary Asian diasporic culture. Chin tells a story of Chinese immigrants in English — with rap and spoken word, no less. This crossover of cultures would not have been possible without decades of cultural development within the Asian diaspora.
Chin’s blending of Chinese and American identities in “Illegal” is remarkably bold. Common principles in Chinese culture, from filial piety to honor, both clash and mesh with American values of freedom and allegiance. The most complex character in the play, the Chinese-American translator for Angel Island inspections, experiences an identity crisis when confronted with the moral dilemma of his cruel job, and his split loyalties to his country and his people.
A goosebump-inducing scene near the end of the musical alludes to the poetry that inspired Chin to write “Illegal” — a Cantonese voice-over melds with the voices of the cast as they recite translated verses that real immigrants had carved onto the walls of Angel Island detainment centers, the weight of each word they spoke striking along with the beat of the drums. “Now the history is mine to write,” says Chin’s character, a line that seems to refer to his own writing of history in the form of the musical. As the program notes, “Illegal” may be your introduction to this history, but do not let this be the end of your exploration.”
Catch “Illegal” this weekend on Friday, April 19 at 8 pm or Saturday, April 20 at 2 pm or 8 pm.
TSAI Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale November 28, 2018
Student award winners.
From a lack of roles on mainstream television to the 25-year gap between The Joy Luck Club and this year’s Crazy Rich Asians (the most recent major movies to feature majority Asian American casts), Asian American representation in media and the arts continues to lag. Media studies show that Asian American experiences are often absent from screens, galleries, and theaters, or flattened to stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayals. This fall, Tsai CITY and the Asian American Cultural Center at Yale (AACC) teamed up to encourage Yale students to apply their creativity to addressing this issue. The Arts & Media Innovation Awards, comprised of five $500 grants, aim to encourage art and multi-media explorations of Asian American identity.
“Students have often expressed their frustration with the under/misrepresentation of Asian Americans in mainstream media, not feeling like they always had the means to tell their story,” says AACC director Joliana Yee, who conceptualized the program. “In launching this award program with Tsai CITY, it is my hope that our Asian American students will be empowered to use their voice to amplify the often untold and unseen lived experiences of the Asian American community.” The award program’s call for projects this fall was broad, inviting proposals for art pieces, musical compositions, films, podcasts, poetry, and other creative projects. Regardless of medium, applicants were challenged to broaden the representation of Asian American experiences. The project brief asked students to outline how their project would be innovative — defined as “exploring, understanding, and challenging existing systems so as to imagine what could be” — as well as how it would center underrepresented voices and be accessible to a wide audience.
Five projects, offering a variety of lenses on Asian American identity, were selected in a process led by a panel of alumni: Nancy Yao Maasbach (SOM ’99), president of the Museum of Chinese in America; Art Priromprintr (YSD ’11), Manager of Dance Programming at The Kennedy Center; Ellen Su (YC ’13), co-founder and CEO of Wellinks and a CITY mentor-inresidence; and Kevin Winston (YC ’91), CEO of Digital LA and founder and president of Yale in Hollywood. Through music, theater, film, photography, and audio/visual installation, students will collectively explore immigration and assimilation, mixed-race identity, family heritage, food, and more.
Over the next few months, students will work with mentors from CITY’s network, along with staff at both CITY and the AACC, as they develop their ideas. The five projects will debut as part of Pan Asian American Heritage Month in March 2019. Meet the project teams:
Asian-American Representation Through Songwriting Emily Li (YC), Caroline Ho (YC) These students plan to write and record an EP of original songs focusing on Chinese immigrant stories and experiences, with at least one song in a mix of Chinese and English. Li is a singer-songwriter and Ho is a pianist-songwriter; they plan to bring these skills together to share their families’ stories, with a goal of shedding light on underrepresented experiences and starting conversations. “In writing music about these stories,” they say, “we aim to raise awareness to the experiences of Asian immigrants, while celebrating their determination, struggle, and culture.”
Asian-ish Photo Project Molly Ono (YC), Mariko Rooks (YC) Ono and Rooks will create a photo campaign centered around examining the experience of mixed Asian students on Yale’s campus. They envision a combination of group and individual photos that showcase the visual diversity of the mixed population on campus, while providing personal stories and narratives to give voice to the simultaneous uniquenesses and the universality of the mixed experience. They note, “Much of the mixed experience centers around the discomfort and lack of belonging that stems from physical ambiguity and the resulting desires of others to racially categorize mixed individuals (i.e., asking ‘What are you?’ in the middle of a supermarket). By reclaiming our image though photography and proudly displaying it in Asian American spaces, we redefine what it means to ‘look Asian.’”
Illegal: A New Musical Skyler Chin (YC) Composed by Skyler Chin, this original musical blending rap, rock, and spoken word poetry is inspired by the true experiences of Skyler’s grandparents. With content based on historical documents, “Illegal” traces the immigration journeys of several young people from China to the United States in 1923, when the US enforced its Chinese Exclusion Act by separating families at the border and imprisoning them on Angel Island for interrogations. “Chinese Exclusion hugely impacted American immigration history, yet it is rarely covered in American history education,” says Chin. “My musical tells an often-neglected narrative and celebrates the voices of people that were both actively silenced in history and forgotten in the present.”
Ping Pong Social Club Film Liyan Zhao (School of Art) This film explores the nuances of immigration, citizenship, and connections to place through two parallel storylines: a story about Zhao’s father, who has hosted a weekly ping pong club for almost a decade, and a diaristic account of Zhao’s own recent US naturalization and, subsequently, her first trip to China as a foreign national. The film’s experimental structure will allow it to expand beyond a singular experience of immigration. Zhao explains, “This film tells my personal story but also represents experiences shared by many other Asian Americans and immigrants to this country. It is a multi-generational and multi-cultural tale that probes tensions between father and daughter, America and China, assimilation and alienation.”
Snack Annie Cheng (YC) “Snack” is a multi-media audio and visual installation project. Cheng plans to interview Asian Americans about edible touchstones of their childhoods, from homecooked meals to packed school lunches, exploring how identity can be understood through food. As the project’s culmination, she will present an edible exhibition, bringing together photos and interview material with some of the foods discussed in the interview series. “Asian food has experienced an unusual transition in recent years,” Cheng says. “When I was a kid, it was a ‘gross’ thing that was embarrassing to bring to school; now, it’s become a gentrified and exoticized new trend to try. My goal is to celebrate it authentically and respectfully, contextualizing food origins as a connection to identity.”
Mark your calendars for March 2019, when these projects will debut — and in the meantime, look out for stories from CITY on the process behind the creation of these projects. Learn more about CITY here and get to know the AACC here .