What’s in a name? In King of the Yees, a play by Lauren Yee currently in its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, a 30-year-old Chinese-American woman struggles to understand her father and his deep connection to the “seemingly obsolescent” neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown. When something happens to shake her father’s confidence in the family name and he goes off the grid, she must draw on the parts of her heritage she thought she had rejected to find him.
Produced in association with Goodman Theatre, the main character in King of the Yees is Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park), based on the playwright herself. It opens with a very meta scene, and this theme remains throughout the piece. Two actors (Daniel Smith and Angela Lin, who play many roles) are performing what seems to be King of the Yees, until they are interrupted by Lauren’s father, Larry (Francis Jue), who has come to see his daughter’s play and seems pretty surprised to learn it’s mostly about him. In an extended sequence that unfolds with the house lights on, Lauren first attempts to get the performance back on track, but things quickly devolve into what appears to be an audience Q&A, but is actually a planned interaction with another planted cast member (Rammel Chan, who also plays many roles).
Here, the scene is set for the primary conflict between Lauren and her father, which is the heart of the story. Lauren has married a Jewish man, changed her last name, might be moving to Germany, and has revealed she might not want children. Larry, who values his 36-generation family legacy above all else, is horrified, and regularly brings up the fact that Lauren never bothered to learn to speak Chinese. In stark contrast, he is a pillar of the Chinatown community and remains involved in the Yee Family Association, an old-fashioned men’s club for people named Yee. He primarily works for AT&T, but his passion lies in volunteering for the various political campaigns of Leland Yee (no relation), who is now running for Secretary of State. Lauren feels Leland has taken advantage of her father for years and doesn’t understand his feeling of kinship to the man all based on a name, but Larry prides himself in the many signs he hangs for Leland all over the city. She is generally ungrateful and a bit oblivious in her interactions with her father, quick to reject Chinatown as a place where she has never felt like she belonged.
The plot really only begins in the final moments of act one, when a scandal in Leland’s campaign sends Larry into a tailspin. While the breaking of the fourth wall and the witty banter between Lauren’s “actors” is amusing, most of act one ends up being quite irrelevant, making way for an overstuffed act two. Lauren is sent on an Into the Woods-esque quest by elders of the community to retrieve the strongest whiskey, the sweetest oranges, and the loudest firecrackers, all for free, by sundown—if she succeeds, she will find her father, whom she has been searching for frantically since the news broke about Leland. The journey forces her to draw on the parts of her Chinese roots that have long lied dormant and to think back on her father’s many stories about Chinatown that she never properly appreciated. This could be an entire play in itself, but as half an act it feels rushed.
Towards the end, Lauren tells the audience the story she ended up telling was not the one she set out to tell. While the character’s identity crisis works well, the play’s does not. It wants to be so many things, ultimately feeling unfocused and about 30 minutes too long. That’s not to say any of its myriad parts are bad or unenjoyable. For example, in act one as they wait for the “performance” to resume, the actors Lauren has hired to play herself and her father go on a great riff about Asian stereotypes in acting. While it does relate to the central themes, it might work better launching another play entirely rather than taking up real estate in this one.
King of the Yees is very funny, thanks in large part to comedic, versatile performances, absurdist humor, and smart direction by Joshua Kahan Brody. There are a couple truly hilarious and dynamic sequences involving the action being either slowed down or fast-forwarded that played brilliantly and had the audience in stitches, as well as fun dancing and music choices throughout. Ultimately, the play is at its best when it is focusing on Lauren and Larry’s complicated but loving relationship and how their differences—and their similarities—relate back to their Chinese culture. While the play’s ambition and abundance of ideas ends up distracting from the emotional core, there is still a lovely story here with many astute observations about the importance of family legacies.
King of the Yees runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through August 6th. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. Other productions of the play are planned at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle and National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada for later this year. Photo: Craig Schwartz