Lauren Yee’s Multi-Layered Play is a Chinese Puzzlebox

by Jean Schiffman

San Francisco Playhouse produces Lauren Yee’s newest work, “King of the Yees.”

It was spring 2014, and San Francisco-born playwright Lauren Yee was about to start writing “King of the Yees,” about her father, Larry Yee, an active member of Chinatown’s 150-year-old Yee Fung Toy Family Association. Just then, State Senator Leland Yee, a San Franciscan, was arrested
on felony racketeering charges. Later, Chinatown tong leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was arrested for murder and corruption. Both, who are now incarcerated, became characters in her play, as is a version of Lauren herself.

The arrests not only affected what she would write but, she says, it also “impacted or changed the narrative of what my father’s community service meant.” He’d been a big political supporter of Leland Yee for 20 years because of the family association. Chinatown family associations, as explained in the play, were originally formed “when Chinese workers migrated to America during the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad…[B]arred from bringing their wives and children, the men… formed clubs based on last names.” In the beginning of “King of the Yees,” we’re told that this is a play about “dying Chinatowns, about how things fall apart and how to say goodbye”—although by the end, the character Lauren has a somewhat different point of view on what the play really means.

“King of the Yees,” opening at San Francisco Playhouse, is “loud, exhilarating, overstuffed with stories,” says the playwright, on the phone from New York. It’s also a metatheatrical and wildly funny comedy that’s part fairytale, part heroine’s journey—a layered, unpredictable Chinese puzzle box of a play. In it anything can happen, as Yee notes, so one of her challenges was to decide upon the rules of that world.

In the five-member, all-Asian American cast, Lauren (played by Krystle Piamonte) and Larry (Francis Jue) are struggling to understand each other across a generational and cultural gap, and the three others (Jomar Tagatac, Rinabeth Apostol and William Dao) play actors who themselves are portraying various characters.

The real-life Lauren Yee, whose parents had moved from Chinatown to the Richmond District by the time she was born, says, “I have such strong feelings about San Francisco and the community I grew up in.” A prolific playwright, she estimates about half of her 10 or so produced plays have been staged here, starting with “Ching Chong Chinaman” at Impact Theatre in Berkeley and, at San Francisco Playhouse in 2015, “in a word” (“The Great Leap” comes to American Conservatory Theater in March). “I’ve grown increasingly interested in very specific communities,” she says, “worlds that require a lot of research and digging in and collisions of cultures…

“At the heart of [‘King of the Yees’],” she continues, “it’s about the difficulty of how to relate to your parents when you become an adult and have to put distance between you and your parents.” The Lauren in the play, like the real Lauren, has married a Jewish man and moved to New York; fictional Lauren is also considering moving to Germany and doesn’t know whether she’ll have kids (real Lauren was pregnant in late November).

To play Larry, Lauren Yee and her director, Joshua Kahan Brody, were happy to cast New York actor Francis Jue, who is from San Francisco; a stage actor as well as a recurring character on the TV series “Madame Secretary,” he’s the only cast member to travel here with the show, which has already run in Chicago (where the Goodman Theatre commissioned it) and Los Angeles. Of the similarities between Jue and her father, Yee says, “They’re both open, welcoming people who others are naturally drawn to. Francis captures the spirit of someone who creates community wherever he goes.” As it happens, her grandmother was a classmate of Jue’s father at Galileo High School.

For his part, Jue says, “My connection to Chinatown is much like Lauren’s.” By the time he was born, his American-born parents had moved to the Richmond district from Chinatown; it took his mother a long time to realize that what was home for her was not for her children—Jue does not speak Cantonese, and as a kid, Chinatown was completely foreign to him.

He learned a lot about that world by working on the play: He met people in the Chicago chapter of the Yee family association when performing there, and also met members of Lauren Yee’s family, dozens of whom came from all over the country to see the performances in Chicago and L.A. “But,” he says, “the play is not about China and immigration. It’s about how children often leave the community they were born in.” He wonders, now, what value is there in passing on knowledge of the community? How much of that do we want our children to know? “Only when we’re older do we realize we’re inextricably tied to the past,” he muses.

As he rehearsed the role of Larry in Chicago, he kept asking Lauren and director Brody how far to go with “this really eccentric character,” and was encouraged to continually do more, be bigger. Then the actual Larry Yee showed up and, Jue says, laughing, “I understood.” Real Larry arrived with his own film crew to participate in an audience talkback. “He is one of the most generous people I know,” says Jue. “I think a lot of his unique gregariousness comes from his generosity.” Says Lauren, of her father’s reaction to seeing the play, “He’s a mixture of mortified and delighted. He sees himself less as an audience member and more of a mascot and a big supporter.”

Jue points out that he has never tried to embody the real Larry. “He’s a tall guy, I am five foot six. He has a big mustache and a beautiful head of hair and I don’t. The great thing about plays like Lauren’s is they’re not trying to be biographies. I am trying to capture the essence of what Lauren wrote about her father. The play is a kind of Alice in Wonderland roller coaster ride, too, and doesn’t try to be literal. She acknowledges that her father told her stories some of which may have had some truth in them. And in the same way, she’s telling stories about her father—her illusions and hopes about her father and Chinatown—some of which is true.”

He adds, “I am a little nervous about coming to San Francisco and playing Larry because everyone knows him. This will be a great challenge!” 

“I’m excited to share this play with the people it’s about and who it was written for,” comments Lauren Yee. “One thing I hope the play will do,” she adds, “is to introduce you to the complexities of Chinatown. We no longer restrict Chinese-Americans from living in certain parts of town. What do you do with Chinatown now, and those communities, as they change over time? And who gets to decide that?”

Jan. 22 → Mar. 2

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St., San Francisco