King of the Yees Review - A Hero's Journey through Chinatown

Meet Larry Yee, husband, father, “telephone guy,” community leader, and the “King of the Yees” in Lauren Yee’s new, multi-layered play of the same name. The play is about Lauren’s evolving relationship with her father, Larry Yee, and how their relationship has been molded by his leadership role in the Yee Fung Toy of San Francisco, and his loyalty to the local Chinatown community.

 

 

 

Lauren hasn’t completely embraced her role as Larry Yee’s daughter. She’s in her mid-thirties, unapologetically childless, living in New York, and married to a Jewish lawyer. She doesn’t even speak Chinese. As far as she’s concerned, she’s no longer a true Yee, and she’s not sure if she’s even worthy of being a Yee. Then, she’s forced to explore her Yee-ness through a traditional hero’s journey.

 

The play opens with a play, and this gets a little confusing. Like the real Lauren, Lauren, the character, earnestly played by Stephenie Soohyun Park, has written a play about her relationship with her father. Two actors, played by Angela Lin and Daniel Smith, playing Lauren and Larry in the inner play, are running through a scene in front of a theatrical depiction of the looming, ornate, red door of the Yee Fung Toy. Suddenly, the real character of Larry, played larger-than-life by Francis Jue, makes his grand entrance, and takes over the rehearsal. The actors are immediately enthralled with Larry, who takes an interest in them, and tells them stories about himself and his Chinatown connections. Lauren hopes he will leave soon.

 

 

To understand Larry Yee, it’s important to appreciate the origins of America’s Chinatowns, and Chinese family associations, and the playwright does a terrific job of explaining through Lauren’s and Larry’s disagreements, without bringing the story to a grinding halt. Larry enjoys his ability to navigate Chinatown to fulfill all his needs, and lauds the Yee Fung Toy, for giving family and friendship to men who might otherwise be lonely, as it did in the nineteenth century after passage of The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 left men alone without their families. Lauren has her mom and dad, and her husband, and quips that she’s not really related to any of these Yee “cousins.”

 

 

 

Ultimately, “King of the Yees” is an exploration of what it means to be an Americanized, English-only speaking grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants, and how this generation relates to their traditional parents and grandparents. Larry illustrates how the older generations of Chinese Americans learned to live with isolation, and perhaps even enjoy aspects of it as isolation forced them to create strong small community connections. Lauren observes that she’s able to use her greater freedom to find a secure place in the larger American society, and beseeches Larry, “Isn’t that’s a good thing?” Larry isn’t so sure. He had been there, and was happier after he went back.

 

By the end of Act I, Lauren gives up trying to understand Larry, and plans to expedite her departure from San Francisco. She’s propelled into her part-fantasy hero’s journey when, on the eve of Larry’s sixtieth birthday banquet, Leland Yee, a local politician “cousin” Larry has helped through many elections over many years, is accused of corruption, and arrested. Then, Larry goes missing. Lauren, afraid that Larry has been arrested, or kidnapped, is determined to find him. To accomplish her goal, she must confront a local gangster called Shrimp Boy, and find her way through the web of connections within the Yee Fung Toy, and Chinatown, connection she had previously rejected.

 

 

 

Lauren’s journey is a real hero’s journey with all the elements: a scary challenge, encounters with villains, heralds, gatekeepers, mentors, use of potions and talismans, the experience of a supreme ordeal, and lessons learned. The actors from Lauren’s play-within-the-play fill the roles of the various hero’s journey archetypes, and find some time to tell their own parallel stories about being Chinese, part Chinese, and not Chinese at all, but a Korean actor playing a Chinese character in a play.

 

 

 

On another level, “King of the Yees” is more than a simple hero’s journey. It’s reminiscent of a three-sided transcendent story as described by screenwriters and writing coaches, Allen Palmer, Jeremy Casper, and John Bucher.  Larry’s traditional view of love, loyalty, and small, tight community is at odds with Lauren’s embrace of a world community. Neither is a villain. They just disagree. Through their separate journeys, arguments, and humbling reconciliation, each learns to live in harmony with the other by accepting a little bit of the other’s world, without compromising their own. In a world of strife and isolation, transcendent stories like “King of the Yees” help bring us together in understanding and acceptance, if not agreement. Lauren Yee, the real life playwright, does an admirable job creating both the hero’s journey and transcendent story. It has a few silly, and a few confusing, moments, but next time you’re in a bar in Chicago’s Chinatown, you just might want to trust Larry Yee, and order the “cheap good stuff.”

 

“King of the Yees” is playing in the Owen Theater at the Goodman Theater, 170 N Dearborn Street Chicago, IL, through April 30, 2017.

Photos by Liz Lauren

 

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