Meet Playwright Lauren Yee
"King of the Yees" by Lauren Yee is a touching, hysterical play about a Chinese American father-daughter relationship, playing at the Goodman Theatre from March 31- April 30, 2017. This is a world premiere Goodman Commission. King of the Yees is an offbeat and electric joy ride about living in the contemporary world while honoring one’s rich ancestral heritage—and the conflict that ensues. The affable Larry Yee remains a driving force in the San Francisco Chinese American community as the head of the Yee Family Association, a seemingly obsolescent men's club dedicated to the preservation of the Yee line. His daughter Lauren, however, is dismissive of its patriarchal culture policy, despite her father’s lifelong dedication to the group. When Larry suddenly goes missing, Lauren’s desperate search drops her into a strange but familiar world where she will have to embrace the past if she wants to get her father back. Explore the vivid history of America’s largest Chinatown through the eyes of a new generation in Lauren Yee’s hilarious and touching theatrical quest to connect with her family lineage. For tickets and more information, click here.
What's your personal story?
If you come to see KING OF THE YEES, you'll get a lot of what my story is, so I won't spoil most of it for you.
But briefly, as an ABC (American born Chinese) growing up in San Francisco, I've often felt somewhat of an outsider in my own community, unable to speak the language or understand the customs. And this play is my way of finally grappling with that in an unexpected, joyful way.
As a writer, I love funny stories, I love painful stories. I love that line that runs between what is funny and painful and sad. I want theater that has joy that runs the gamut of emotions. I love seeing virtuosic actors doing unexpected, joyful things on stage. I tend to write plays that celebrate the ensemble, which is perhaps why I am so fond of working in Chicago. For me, KING OF THE YEES does all of those things. It is a deeply personal story but it is also so universal.
What was your main intention behind writing "King of the Yees"?
I always thought my dad deserved his own story. He's really a larger than life character and he somehow always manages to take over every room that he's in. And for twenty years, he's also been a huge force in San Francisco Chinatown and more specifically, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a Chinese American men's club that dates back to the late 1800s. His experience of Chinatown and the Chinese American community is so different from what I've seen out there in the media or even what I knew growing up, and I wanted to show this rich, maddening, wonderful version of what Chinatown is. Chinatown is at once so iconic and unknowable, and researching this play allowed me to ask all those stories about the community and about my father and our family history that I never would have gotten to ask otherwise.
What challenges did you face telling this story?
I actually have a fairly good relationship with my father, and so in thinking initially about how to dramatize a version of my and my father's story felt insincere. It wasn't until I really invested in what our relationship was like that the play cracked open for me. It's a view on parent/child relationships that's less of an AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY knockdown drag out fight and more like the bond that so many of us actually have with our parents: funny, idiosyncratic, heartfelt, and incredibly hilariously frustrating.
Also, I got commissioned to write this play for the Goodman Theatre in fall 2013. At the time, I knew I wanted to write about my dad, about his connection to Chinatown and the Yee Family Association, and about my relationship with him. But I didn't know what the "why now?" of the play was--why was this story bubbling up now? But then--and I won't spoil it for you--just as I was sitting down to write the play, real live events emerged that shaped what this play would become. I could not have written a better jumpstart to the play.
What challenges might you face being an Asian American female playwright in 2017?
I have had very great fortune in how my career has progressed, and because my identity (Asian American, female, all other aspects of myself) is so embedded in my work, it's difficult for me to ascertain what my career would be like if I were someone else. There's no other version of me out there for me to compare against.
But the most practical challenge is finding the bodies to inhabit my work. I would say about half of my plays contain ethnically specific (mainly Asian American) characters. And if theaters don't have access to those actors--or don't yet know who those actors are--the plays don't get done. So I'm incredibly proactive about finding the people who are right for specific parts.
And so I always love it when theaters regularly hire a diverse group of actors, because they're helping me do the work, laying down the track, building the relationships with different kinds of actors, so that when you need that Middle Eastern actor who sings or that actor who speaks Mandarin and plays guitar, you've already worked with them on five other projects so it's not a cold call and these actors already trust that you do good work.
It always galls me when a theater claims a) "there are no actors who are ______"
and then when I give them a list, then says, b) "but are they experienced?", or "they're busy," or "they don't want to work with us." I am currently working on a play with music that requires Asian American actors who can play in a rock band. It is not an impossible task, but you need to do your homework in advance and lay down the track ahead of the train.
Chicago has an enormous amount of wonderful talent that is constantly being renewed with young actors, and so I'm excited to take advantage of that with KING OF THE YEES and other projects I'm working on.