The King of the Yees Review - To Be or Not to Be a Yee

The world premiere production of KING OF THE YEES recently opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Chinese-American playwright Lauren Yee pulls together her long struggle with her dual heritage and her equally strong need to get closer to her immigrant Chinese father. A common theme among first generation children of immigrant parents, author Yee must deal with the conflicting loyalties which assimilation entails. She must learn how to strike a comfortable and healthy balance between them. This is a tale about preserving and also developing meaningful identity under complex conditions.

Francis Jue as Larry Yee - Photo by Craig Schwartz

THE KING OF THE YEES is a play within a play which depicts playwright Lauren Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) interacting with her father, Larry Yee (Francis Jue) – and at the same time actors portraying Lauren and Larry (Daniel Smith and Angela Lin) interacting with each other. It seems that Larry Yee has been the big poohbah in the Yee Fung Toy, a nearly obsolescent Chinese-American men’s club formed 150 years ago around the time of the Gold Rush. And then Larry goes missing. Lauren is forced to explore San Francisco’s Chinatown – and her own discarded roots – as she embarks on the search for her father.

Angela Lin, Francis Jue, and Daniel Smith - Photo by Craig Schwartz

William Boles’ scenic design is simple – a dark stage with an ornate brilliant red door leading into the Yee Fung Toy. “Audience” participation is encouraged as the principals assume multiple roles in the drama. Izumi Inaba deserves kudos for his effective Chinese tiger costume. Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound round out the key elements in production. Of particular note is the well-choreographed Matrix-like slow-motion gun battle in the second act – as well as a brief speed-up which occurs earlier in the play. Director Joshua Kahan Brody handles the deceptively simple – yet so complex – tale with skill, as do the actors in this very personal drama.

Francis Jue and Stephenie Soohyun - Photo by Craig Schwartz

KING OF THE YEES is an intriguing study of the cultural factors – both stressful and comforting – which occur to transplants from other cultures, as well as those same mutated cultural norms and how they affect their children. Even though this piece is about the Chinese culture and its impact on Chinese immigrants and their families, it could easily be as true for any group of people who leave their own birthplace to settle in another country with different values and customs.

Stephenie Soohyun and Angela Lin - Photo by Craig Schwartz

In many ways, KING OF THE YEES feels like Lauren Yee’s psychotherapy project as she delves into her roots and tries to find the perfect balance between being Chinese and American at the same time. As such, it is involving and personal. However, the events in the play may be succeeding in driving Lauren’s father farther away from the audience - especially since he is portrayed as a very friendly, outgoing, and likeable guy who would be easy to get to know. One feels that Lauren’s angst about the father-daughter relationship may be distorting reality through Lauren’s rather pessimistic prism. That being said, KING OF THE YEES should appeal to most audiences, especially those members who have experienced “the melting pot” within their own families.

Angela Lin and Stephenie Soohyun - Photo by Craig Schwartz

KING OF THE YEES runs through August 6, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Tickets range from $25 to $70. For information and reservations, call 213-628-2772 or go online.      

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