“King of the Yees” at SF Playhouse

“King of the Yees” at SF Playhouse

Carol Benet

Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees” at The San Francisco Playhouse is a biographical play is about Lauren’s father Larry Yee,  He is the head of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association that celebrates a long line of Yee ancestors and he is also very connected to San Francisco Chinatown.  This is one of the funniest play in the Bay Area today. Smart, witty and enjoyable, it also teaches the non Asian audience about the traditions, contradictions and inner workings of Chinatown, its inhabitants, politicians and the young people, like Lauren Lee, who have left their communities here to go on in the world.

It starts with two actors playing the 60 year old father Larry and his daughter Lauren but we soon learn that these two  (Jomar Tagatac and Rinabeth Apostol) are merely actors playing their parts.  Soon a befuddled man quickly walks onto the stage from the audience and on arriving trips and spills all the contents of the cardboard box that he is carrying.  He is supposed to be the real Larry Yee (Francis Jue) meeting his daughter Lauren (Krystle Piamonte).  Both sets of Larrys and Laurens are on the stage. The female impersonation of Lauren (Apostle) also plays other characters in different costumes — saleswoman, audience member/ Berkeley activist.

The two teams do not interact with each other and have two stories, the Yee story and the one about the actors own lives.  Not only is this layering interesting but people from the audience (actors of course) are called into the action and one played by Will Dao climbs over a tight row filled with people so he can go up to the stage where Larry beckons him finding out out he is a Yee. During the play Dao plays other roles, ones where he wears cover-up costumes like the Chinese parade lion or the Face Changing Man.

As the plot goes Lauren has written a play about her father Larry and she comes to San Francisco to visit him and tell him about what she wrote.  The entire play takes place in front of the doors of the Chinese red entrance to the Yee Club, doors that are to be the link to their ancestors.  The set was designed by the brilliant Bill English, co-founder of the SF Playhouse (with Susi Damilano) and major domo often directing and designing productions and performing other theatrical business.

Larry tells his daughter about the Yee Association, one that is in a decline obviously because children like Lauren go off, and in her case she marries a Jewish lawyer and will move to Germany for his work.   Lauren does not even know Cantonese and some funny scenes consist of Larry talking in Chinese to her incomprehension. Another audience member, the activist Jenny Pang, wearing a CAL sweatshirt comes up to the stage and berates Lauren for not telling the whole story of Chinatown in her play.  What about the “real issues”: problems of the seniors, gentrification, economics and the gangs?

The second act has more metaphorical elements in telling the story.  In one part the gang leader Raymond Shrimp Boy Chow (played by Tagatac) stages a gun attack.  In others the Model Ancestor (Dao) and the Face Changing Man come into play.  There are many references to the corrupt and now imprisoned Leland Yee for whom Larry loyally volunteered for years.  Lauren Yee said in an interview that more than a realistic picture of Chinatown, the play is more of a “hero’s quest” and she certainly does bring out, through the eyes of the next generation, the stories of the elders.

“King of the Yees” is very much about identity.  Lauren never felt part of the Chinese culture in which she was born and especially Chinatown where her father took her to Yee family banquets.  Her own mixed-marriage testifies to her estrangement from her cultural roots.  The actors who play Lauren and Larry also have interesting cultural roots.  Actress Lauren (Rinabeth Apostle) isn’t even Chinese; she is Korean.  And Actor Larry (Tagatac) is 3/4 Chinese. There is a big discussion about the stereotypes into which they don’t exactly fit.

The play is a bit too long to sustain the high  comedy and surprise of the first act.  It lasts two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. The second act drags and could do without a few of the incidents.  The liquor stand?  The face-changing man? Shrimp Boy scene too long? Director Joshua Kahan Brody had a handful keeping all these characters and scenes together and he managed them with skill. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design is effective, especially the rumbles and thunder whenever Shrimp Boy is mentioned.

Despite the too-long second act, the production is a winner.  Lauren Yee has had many plays produced all over the country and is on the schedule of many others.  She brings up an important subject here, the acculturation of Asian Americans with a special nod to San Francisco’s Chinatown. An interesting photography exhibit is on display in the lobby leading to the theater seats.  Here are copies of photos, many by Arnold Genthe of 19th century Chinatown and one by Dorothea Lange.  They areaccompanied by informative labels about the Chinese in San Francisco.

“King of the Yees” at SF Playhouse runs through March 2, 2019.  Tickets from sfplayhouse.org or 415  677 9596.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →