King of the Yees
The “Immigrant Family through the Generations” chronicle plays out in the Chinatowns, Little Italys, Barrios, and other enclaves across the country. As succeeding generations further assimilate, distances between parent and child often grow. The more Americanized youth often move out of the ethnic ghettos; fail to uphold the traditions and learn the language of their ancestors; and even marry outside their clan.
Playwright Lauren Yee exemplifies cultural assimilation. Having lived away from her family and hometown, San Francisco, for a decade, she realized that she had not really known her father as a person. King of the Yees is a riotous and fractured (in more ways than one) depiction of her effort to connect with him as an adult.
The structure of the play almost defies description. It opens with two actors preparing to perform as father Larry Yee and daughter Lauren. But it becomes a play-within-a-play of sorts when along comes the supposedly real Larry who starts offering gratuitous advice, and the supposed Lauren, who tries to rein him in. Although a discernable story line emerges, a compendium of sometimes unrelated, often culturally self-deprecating, clever sketches associated with her quest ensues.
Larry’s commitment to his heritage is unwavering. His identity and activity are subsumed by his roots. He is well-respected and the president of Chinatown’s 150-year-old Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a club for men with the Yee surname. Conversely, Lauren escaped the tight circle and sees the association and many Chinatown practices as obsolete and decaying, but Larry clings to them.
The humorous situations derive in part from the opposing positions and perceptions that father and daughter hold. But more than that, the laughter that Francis Jue as Larry extracts from the material amazes. His smile alone induces chuckles.
The main plot thread affirms Larry’s devotion to everything Chinese. In particular, he has volunteered over the years for all of the political candidacies of Leland Yee, a Chinese-American politician, who shares the same surname but little else. The turn that Leland’s real-life fortunes take, which most San Franciscans will know, drives the action.
In the second act, Lauren searches for Larry who has mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, Jue’s comic affect goes missing along with his character, with the result that the second act isn’t quite as funny as the first. The procedings also turn from grounded toward fantasy. As in a fairy tale, Lauren must satisfy three challenges in order to find Larry, and those pursuits require her to understand her culture better. As a result, more trappings of Chinese society unfold, enriching the play.
The dominant takeaway from the play is unrestrained, feel-good laughter. Silly incidents include a slow motion shoot-out involving real-life mobster Shrimp Boy; Lauren arguing with a woman liquor store owner about who has suffered more; supposed Chinese and Korean actors trying to teach each other how to do anaccent in their respective languages; and a send-up of Miss Saigon. As funny as the script is, a flawless ensemble of five actors makes the play better, delivering the goods in exquisite fashion. In addition to Jue, Krystle Piamonte plays the put-upon and often frantic Lauren with great aplomb. But many of the funniest gags are provided by the three game actors who play multiple roles – Jomar Tagatac, Rinabeth Apostol, and Will Dao.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody pushes the accelerator to a brisk level and marshals top flight production values. Bill English’s set is as fitting as it is spare, comprised mostly of the imposing red doors of the Yee Association. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound and Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting are spot on, and Sarah Nietfeld’s striking costumes light up the stage.
The easy knock on King of the Yees is that more content could be devoted to Lauren and Larry’s connection and to a more cohesive plot line without the irrelevant diversions. Those who expect a play to deliver a building dramatic arc and are immune to kaleidoscopic humor may not appreciate this piece. Yet its thematic points are made; its production is highly professional in every way; and it is a joy to watch.
King of the Yees by Lauren Yee is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays on their stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through March 2, 2019.