BWW Review: THE KING OF THE YEES Playwright Lauren Yee Shares Her Father's Story in an Innovative World Premiere Staging
It's been said the best type of story to tell is always of a personal nature, sharing your own experiences to make them even more real for your audience. That advice has been taken to heart by playwright Lauren Yee, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab who has received commissions from the Denver Center of the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3, Mixed Blood Theatre, Portland Center Stage, South Coast Repertory and Trinity Repertory Company, and received her B.A. from Yale University and MFA from UCSD.
In her new latest play KING OF THE YEES, now enjoying its World Premiere at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Yee shares the tale of how her father Larry has been a driving force in the Yee Fung Toy (Yee Family Association), a seemingly obsolescent Chinese American men's club formed 150 years ago in the wake of the Gold Rush when workers from China were brought to San Francisco to assist in the building of the much-needed railroads crossing America. And while the story may be totally fictionalized, it seemed very real to me, especially since Yee wrote herself as well as her father into the play, having them introduced in an innovative, comical, and interactive way during the preamble to the production. For those of you lucky enough to be seated in the front row, be prepared to interact with the overly friendly and well-intentioned Larry Yee, portrayed with energy and glee by Francis Jue.
Larry seems oblivious to the advice of his daughter Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park), and their initial interaction sets the stage for the many comical bits which enhance the overall magnificence of the innovative production, with William Boles' scenic design centering around two massive Chinese-style doors center stage which represent the entrance to the Yee Fung Toy men's social club. Be sure to keep your eyes on these doors as their appearance changes miraculously during several moments during the play, often creating gasps of wonder from the audience.
A large t-shaped cross set on its side creates the picture frame for the many various scenes, often slanted in opposite directions to reflect the change of venue, along with shifts in the lighting design by Heather Gilbert, which often includes various patterns on the stage as well as the entire theater space to enhance the atmosphere of the scenes. Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel and projections designed by Mike Tutaj will entice all your senses, engulfing you in the many aspects of Yee's journey into the realm of Chinese-American culture, enhanced by Izumi Inaba's costume design which stresses the individuality of each character.
Basically, the story follows two actors reading the script of the play, waiting for Lauren to appear to discuss the staging with them. Daniel Smith is Actor One with Angela Lin portraying Actor Two, who often morph into the many characters in the story along with Rammel Chan (Actor Three) who takes on more interesting roles than I could count. And while I cannot tell you which actor played the many roles, I salute whoever played the Chinese dragon as being one of the most eye-catching of the production. Be advised many of the characters enter through the audience!
The plot of Yee's play centers on what happens when her father goes missing, plunging Lauren into the rabbit hole of San Francisco's Chinatown to confront a world both foreign and familiar to her. It's a joyride across cultural, national and familial borders that explores what it means to truly be a Yee.
And while, as Larry Yee tells us, they are not as numerous as the Wongs, the family is an important one in San Francisco's famous Chinatown. His enthusiasm for his family name is apparent, especially as he supports a candidate for public office named Yee, although he may not be a direct member of his immediate family. He is a Yee, and that is all that matters, even when it turns out he gets disqualified from the race, resulting in Larry being thrown in jail as an accomplice. But I do not want to reveal any more of the many ins and outs of the story as that would spoil the fun of watching everything play out!
In addition to presenting and producing the broadest range of theatrical entertainment in the country, Center Theatre Group is one of the nation's leading producers of ambitious new works through commissions and world premiere productions and a leader in interactive community engagement and education programs that reach across generations, demographics and circumstance to serve Los Angeles. I congratulate them on bringing this innovative new play by talented playwright Lauren Yee to the stage. Don't miss it.
The world premiere production of KING OF THE YEES by Lauren Yee, directed with innovative flair by Joshua Kahan Brody and produced in association with Goodman Theatre, continues through August 6, 2017 at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre. The cast includes, in alphabetical order, Rammel Chan, Francis Jue, Angela Lin, Stephenie Soohyun Park and Daniel Smith.
Tickets are available by calling (213) 628-2772, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance, or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Tickets range from $25 - $70 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.
Photos by Craig Schwartz