When Lauren Yee was a child, her father liked to tell her the story of how the Yees came into being. “My father would argue, ‘All Yees are related,’” she recalls over afternoon coffee. “He would say”—and here she does a rough imitation of her dad’s solemn voice—“‘We all go back to a single Yee, who got to have his own last name because he did a service to the emperor.’” Her dad even has books that chart a family tree of 35 generations of Yees.
It is this family lineage, with its outsized length and strength, that she dramatizes with great comic effect in her newest play, King of the Yees, currently at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago through April 30.
The play’s main characters are Lauren Yee herself and Lawrence, her father. “I knew my father always deserved to have his own play,” Yee says. “When you meet him, he’s like this larger-than-life character who is instantly charismatic and winning.”
Lawrence’s day job is installing telephones in San Francisco, but he is also the president of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a male-only club of Yees living in America, which formed during the early days of Chinese immigration; there’s now 14 chapters in the U.S. The play’s title reflects that, as Lawrence is the president of the San Francisco chapter, one of the nation’s oldest Chinatowns, he’s essentially “king of the Yees.”
To many second- and third-generation Chinese Americans, such organizations may seem a relic from a bygone era. But for Yee, it was a way for her to learn more about her family history, and about her father. In researching the play, both father and daughter traveled to Taishan, China, the purported birthplace of the Yee ancestral line. “In order to learn about my father, I had to write a play about him,” she admits.
Not that King of the Yees is a documentary play. In it, the fictional Lawrence disappears, and Lauren must find him via a fantastical journey through Chinatown, complete with a Matrix-style gunfight and a lion dance. In one memorable scene, she talks to the ghost of her ancestors, who closes their conversation with: “Go Yees! And fuck those Wongs.”
Yee is “not just writing a story, she’s really writing a theatrical event,” enthuses Tanya Palmer, director of new play development at the Goodman, who commissioned King of the Yees. “She does a great job of communicating something human and emotional, and playing around with how theatre can work and how a story can be told.”
The play may be stylized and full of slapstick, but it’s all driven by a woman who realizes that she doesn’t quite know who her parents are, especially as they’re getting older. “It’s kind of like the nature of all parent-child relationships, especially when the balance shifts from like one generation’s responsibilities to the next generation’s responsibilities,” the real Yee explains. “I think there’s a lot of pain and discomfort around that shift and not knowing how to deal with that.”
After its Chicago engagement, King of the Yees will be produced at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles (July 9-Aug. 6), and then ACT Theatre in Seattle (Sep. 8-Oct. 1). But it’s not the only play Yee has in rotation: The Chance Theater in Anaheim, Calif., will produce in a word (Sept. 8-Oct. 8), which recently won the Francesca Primus Prize. And in 2018, Denver Center Theatre will produce the world premiere of The Great Leap, also inspired by Yee’s father, though he’s not a character in that play. This month, Yee will be at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., to work on her play Cambodian Rock Band at the Pacific Playwrights Festival (April 21-23).
In person, Yee, 31, is upbeat, with a tone of delivery that may be on the dry side but is usually punctuated with a wide smile. “She has an acerbic, sort of cartoony wit,” says director Joshua Brody, who is directing King of the Yees in Chicago and L.A., “but then there’s also a real warmth and generosity.”
A sampling of her sense of humor can be found in the way she talks about theatremaking. “I think of a career in theatre as the Cliffs of Insanity, from The Princess Bride,” she says. In the movie, the cliffs are a steep vertical rock face, and hero “has to just kind of finger-climb the whole thing,” not knowing when he will reach the top. How does that relate to theatre? “I think one of the qualities that I have that is useful in theatre is a durability. So much of our career needs to be joyful in the process of doing it.” While Yee has been able to give up having a day job and focus on writing (she does still teach the occasional course at Princeton University), she doesn’t think the climb is over.
“I’m not a big believer in the idea of someone’s big break—that after this big break everything will be different or everything will be charmed now,” she says. “And I feel like if I have joy in the process as I’m going along, that is the best indicator of success.”
Yee grew up in San Francisco, the eldest daughter of Lawrence and Denise Yee, who was a homemaker. Her first play, written when she was 15 as part of a playwriting competition for Asian American Theater Company, was a 10-minute piece about a young Chinese-American man who discovers the importance of Chinese New Year. “The DNA of that play is in the DNA of all my other play,” Yee explains. “It’s a parent-child story. It’s formally inventive, it switches through time. It’s a little bit about one generation learning the story or the truth behind the other generation’s story. And it had Asian Americans in it.”
Theatregoing wasn’t a family pastime, so Yee got her knowledge of the craft from reading Shakespeare and watching school plays. Then in high school, she formed her own Asian-American youth theatre company with some friends. “A lot of it was on-the-fly learning,” she recalls. “I just loved being around a table full of people.”
She then studied playwriting at Yale, with an MFA from the University of California–San Diego. Her professional debut was Ching Chong Chinaman, about a Chinese-American immigrant family, produced in 2008 by Impact Theatre in Berkeley. Her other plays—Samsara, The Hatmaker’s Wife, in a word—have since been produced around the country.
Though Yee’s plays often have a dark undertone, you can’t always tell at first because of their shiny, happy packaging. Her upcoming The Great Leap tells the story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests through the eyes of a visiting American basketball team.
This interplay between light and dark pervades most of Yee’s work. In a word is about a mother coping with the disappearance of her son, using flashbacks and flash-forwards. But it’s told with an absurdist tone: “One time, lady lost her son. Fifteen years. They found him as a rock, right in her own backyard. Cold, hard, igneous. But it was him. Right under her nose.” Yee describes the play as “the funniest version of the child kidnapping play you’ve ever seen.”
Director Brody praises Yee’s “unique approaches to the stories that need telling that really set her apart and makes her stuff a joy to work on. She has this utterly vast imagination, and so she makes these worlds that are thoroughly identifiable; they’re so much the world that we live in, but sort of with a little more magic. I don’t want to say magical realism, but she invites us to see the world through her eyes. which is a little bit weird and quirky.”
“I think I’m always really interested in the line between humor and pain,” explains Yee. “I think the best comedy comes from jokes that are rooted in sadness because it’s so truthful. And I think I’m always very interested in stories that play with this.”
And as for her father, the inspiration for two of her plays: What does he think of King of the Yees? Lawrence loves it, she says—especially the Matrix sequence. Last year, during a workshop production at the Goodman, he even came up onstage during the talkback.
“He ran the show—it was like being in the play all over again,” she says excitedly. “He brought the people up onstage, he’s like, ‘We got the Taiwanese Cultural ambassador! Any Yees in the audience?’ So people who were not related to me crawled up onstage and we took pictures. And then he had gifts for everyone, for all the actors, and he called them up onstage and presented them with gifts. It was the best talkback I’ve ever been to.”