'King Of The Yees' Is A Funny And Intimate Study Of Chinese-American Identity
When we caught playwright Lauren Yee's sharp-edged comedy Ching Chong Chinaman at a small venue in Hollywood several years ago, we thought its sardonic take on Chinese-American stereotypes and ethnic assimilation was pretty hilarious. Now, Yee's work is back in Los Angeles, and it's slated to reach a wider audience—her new play King of the Yees is running at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.
Although the humor is a little more broad this time around, with less overt shock value or mockery of its characters, King of the Yees is warmer and more mature. It's still often very funny and provides a different perspective on Chinese cultural identities in America.
The two lead characters in this autobiographical play are the playwright Lauren Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) and her father, Larry Yee (Francis Jue). In San Francisco's Chinatown the American-born Larry still clings to membership in the almost-defunct Yee Fung Toy association, a private club for Chinese Americans named Yee. His other avocation is serving as "hatchet man" for (not yet disgraced) California State Senator Leland Yee, which really just means he hangs up campaign posters for the politician all over town. His daughter, who now lives with her Jewish husband in New York (though they're planning to move to Berlin for his work), is back home for the celebration of Larry's 60th birthday, but she has no use for his passionate attachment to the family name and its associated legend and traditions.
Lauren declares to us early on that her play is about a "dying Chinatown, how things fall apart, and how to say goodbye." And indeed most of the first act of King of the Yees depicts a generation gap between the ancestral culture-bound Larry and the Yale-educated Lauren, who believes it's not worth maintaining ties to her family legacy from the distance she has established. After Larry mysteriously disappears, however, Lauren is compelled in her search for him to discover the living secrets of the old neighborhood she's left behind and ultimately to recognize and to reestablish some identification with the world she thought she was no longer a part of.
Interspersed between the main scenes in which the Yees' family drama plays out, a pair of actors who thought they were supposed to play Lauren and Larry in this play wait in the wings for their turn to assume their roles. Like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these two players (Angela Lin and Daniel Smith) engage in idle, but highly charged, discussion of the world passing around them. These moments include an over-the-top joint training session in extreme Asian accents and a hard discussion of the difficult lot of Asian actors in Los Angeles. Along with a third performer, Rammel Chan, they also take on multiple roles throughout the play.
The entire ensemble ably transitions between the naturalism of the play's first act and the sudden surrealism that takes hold after intermission, when Lauren is compelled to discover a Chinatown previously unknown to her. Some of these second-half scenes are perfectly hysterical, including Lauren's encounter with a trio of elders reluctant to share information unless she promises to help their grandchildren get into a UC school (other than Merced), but not an Ivy thousands of miles away. Other scenes, like an encounter with Leland Yee's organized crime accomplice Shrimp Boy, get a bit too schtick-y.
William Boles's deceptively simple set—enhanced by Izumi Inaba's costumes and, especially, Mike Tutaj's projections—transports us into both the familiar and the unfamiliar territories where Lauren treads in her quest to find her father (and perhaps, accidentally, herself as well). Director Joshua Kahan Brody delivers two very different acts, each with its own enveloping atmosphere. By the time fortune cookies are falling out of the sky onto the audience, we're hardly even surprised.