King of the Yees is a muddled fairytale

The Gateway Theatre premiered King of the Yees.

Milton Lim works his accessories in King of the Yees. (David Cooper photo)

If you’re planning to attend King of the Yees, I suggest you arrive at intermission: in terms of the story, the first act is almost entirely irrelevant.

In this new script, playwright Lauren Yee offers a playful, heartfelt—and metatheatrical—take on Chinese-American identity. In the set-up, a character named Lauren Yee, who is also a playwright, is trying to rehearse a script in the hall of a family association that has long been a fixture in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Things go awry when Lauren’s father Larry gets mixed up in a political scandal, which also tangentially involves a Chinese gang.

Unfortunately, the political scandal and Larry’s subsequent disappearance don’t crop up until the very end of Act 1. That means the story doesn’t start until just before it takes a little time off. Up to that point, the first act has consisted of the business about the interrupted rehearsal, which feels clunky, and a series of short scenes that raise important issues, but lack wit as well as dramatic coherence and momentum.

Larry makes the case that his assimilated daughter would do well to appreciate her community and cultural history. He argues for the importance of Chinatowns and knowing the language of your ancestors. The actors, who are named Donna and Raugi in this production because they are being played by Donna Soares and Raugi Yu, talk about the challenges of building their careers as Asian performers: stereotyping, the lack of cultural understanding even among well-meaning producers, and so on. All of these subjects are worth addressing, but they deserve a compelling narrative framework, and they deserve a level of humour more sophisticated than Larry playing air guitar and singing “Secret Asian Man”.

Fortunately, Act 2 improves. Lauren is finally pursuing a goal, which is to find her father, and the script leaps into a wacky land of fairytale. A chiropractor/herbalist adjusts a bone in Lauren’s shoulder and that suddenly allows her to speak Chinese. And three hilarious ghostly figures tell her that she has to make an offering of whiskey, oranges, and firecrackers to unlock a magical set of doors and save her dad. This is all deliberately illustrative and it doesn’t make as much sense on a concrete level as the best fairytales do, but it’s still fun. We get to see a lion dancer, a magical face-changing figure, and a lavishly attired ancestor who flies through the air.

Even though it’s as predictable as morning, the reconciliation, when it arrives, is moving.

Throughout, the acting is first-rate. Andrea Yu has the relatively thankless task of playing Lauren, the straight woman of the piece, but she does a fine job. Jovanni Sy is energetic and, in the end, touchingly understated as Larry. And Soares, Yu, and Milton Lim squeeze every drop of available comic juice out of the script. Their playfulness is infectious.

Pam Johnson’s set, a massive wall of black and rust-coloured doors and shuttered windows, is impressive, if a little alienating. And the wit in Mara Gottler’s costumes ranges from the nerdiness of a supposed audience member to the ornate beauty of the flying ancestor’s robes.

Disclaimer: I’m an old, white guy; much of this show isn’t speaking directly to my experience. Still, in this old white guy’s opinion, in its current state, the script is not well made.

KING OF THE YEES By Lauren Yee. Directed by Sherry J. Yoon. Produced by the Gateway Theatre through a special arrangement with the Goodman Theatre. At the Gateway Theatre on Saturday, October 15. Continues until October 22.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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