“King of the Yees” delivers a cultural mashup between old Chinatown ways and American-born descendants with little ties to the past, language, and traditions. The play, which opened July 16 at at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, looks at generational and cultural divides and questions the impact of assimilation and need for honoring (remembering?) the past. Or as one character comments about moving beyond one’s community, “if they scale the wall, one day children not know it at all.”
Lauren Yee, who grew up in San Francisco, but not in Chinatown, wrote the show. She made the main character a fictionalized version of herself.
The play’s protagonist (called Lauren Yee and winningly played by Stephenie Soohyun Park) is American-born Chinese. She does not speak her ancestor’s language, went to Yale, married a Jewish attorney from New York, and is moving to Germany for his career.
Lauren has trouble relating to her father, Larry (a charismatic and bouncy Francis Jue), who is active in the Chinese community and particularly, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association.
The Yee association is one of the clubs Chinese men formed 130 years ago during the California gold rush and construction of the transcontinental railroad. The associations later grew with the addition of paper sons after Congress barred Chinese immigration.
The family associations were vital, at one time, in helping immigrants, providing cultural support, and establishing a sense of community. Nowadays, many consider them to be obsolescent, particularly in San Francisco’s gentrifying Chinatown.
As Lauren Yee opines in the play, Chinatown itself is dying. It was “established 150 years ago because (Chinese) couldn’t live elsewhere,” she noted, then added that they exist now “for tourists and gangsters.”
Play Within Play
“King of the Yees” uses a play within a play staging to engage the audience. As a result, the actors talk to the audience as well as each other. As two actors rehearse Yee’s supposed play, the real ‘king’ of the show, Larry Yee, comes in and benignly takes over. He talks about the family association and his efforts to campaign on behalf of a Yee politician. He also finds out that his daughter’s play does not cover what he thought it does.
Larry questions, “If she’s not reaching out to the Chinese community, who is she making this play for?” The answer, which played well to the Los Angeles crowd, was “the Jews.”
Other cracks in the play included comparisons about Jewish and Chinese cultures (“moms try to control their sons”) and the entertainment industry’s diversity issue (“Asian actors go to L.A. and disappear”). Later on, reading fortune cookies, the actors add the “… in bed” at the end of the messages, to the audience’s delight.
During the second half, Larry goes missing. To find him, Lauren must search through Chinatown and a get in touch with her heritage as a Yee. At times, the second half employs shtick that seems forced (the gun battle). But other elements are a riot, such as the dragon dance bit that incorporates a concoction of cultural references assimilating a variety of influences).
While it could use tweaking, “King of the Yees” offers a delightful, intelligent, and funny evening at the theater. The play’s witty look at culture and the impact of assimilation will be at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Culver City part of L.A. County through August 6, 2017.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance July 16, 2017
Center Theatre Group: The World Premiere Production Of “King Of The Yees” Opens At Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre Sunday, July 16
Chicago Tribune: ‘King of the Yees’: A playwright tells her own Chinese-American story
Jewish Journal: Jewish roots, Chinese heritage merge in ‘King of the Yees’
Photos of Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue (top) and Angela Lin with Jue and Park (inset) in the world premiere production of “King of the Yees,”directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, written by Lauren Yee, and playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photos © 2017 by Craig Schwartz, courtesy Center Theatre Group.