San Francisco Playhouse’s “King of the Yees” is a wild ride full of culture and familial warmth. By cleverly weaving aspects of Chinese culture into a tale about a father and daughter’s admiration for each other, the play succeeds in strongly impacting the audience emotionally and arousing laughter.
Playwright Lauren Yee writes herself and her father Larry Yee (portrayed by Krystle Piamonte and Francis Jue, respectively) into the play. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, “King of the Yees” opens with a discussion of Lauren’s plans for her freshly written play. From there, the plot gradually develops into a tumultuous journey of self-discovery.
“King of the Yees” was mainly inspired by Larry’s involvement in Chinese American men’s club Yee Fung Toy Family Association and his relationship with former California State senator Leland Yee. The play itself, however, focuses more on the relationship between father and daughter.
“King of the Yees” also addresses Lauren’s anxiety regarding Chinatown — unable to speak Chinese, she constantly feels like an outsider in a place that is supposed to be home. This kind of isolation is something a lot of first-generation immigrants can relate to, and the play portrays this identity confusion accurately. As Lauren searches for her father, who goes missing after Leland’s arrest, she learns to battle her anxieties and alienation through a series of bizarre and comical interactions.
The script makes multiple attempts to incorporate Chinese cultural traditions into the play, all of which triumph spectacularly. For instance, in order to find her father, Lauren dances with a Chinese lion dancer, a mysterious creature with a lion head ceremonial mask that you might see during Lunar New Year festivals. The incorporation of songs that are not Chinese, such as “Cha Cha Slide” and “Gangnam Style,” during these dances reflects Lauren’s upbringing in the United States and her familiarity with American pop culture and media. Juxtaposing such concepts with the traditional Chinese lion mask highlights the duality of Lauren’s roots.
After this lighthearted and humorously choreographed dance montage is a much more serious and almost scary encounter with the Sichuan Face Changer (Jomar Tagatac). Face-changing, or biàn liǎn in Chinese, is a type of ancient dramatic art that is a subgenre of Sichuan opera. The Face Changer informs Lauren that the only way to see her father is to answer a riddle correctly. In this context, the Face Changer likely represents the perception of Lauren as an outsider — traditionally, the secret to the skill and art of face-changing is kept hidden from foreigners.
By cracking the riddle, Lauren realizes there is more to Chinatown than meets the eye. Its deep history and complexities must be explored and appreciated. Lauren herself is also multifaceted; her identity is not black or white and is much more nuanced and complex than she ever imagined. Through this revelation, Lauren learns that in order to embrace herself, she must learn to embrace places or other people like Chinatown.
The play is particularly emotional when it explicitly tells the viewers to express love and appreciation to their parents. Lauren neglects doing so for the majority of the play, believing that she has time to do it later. But once her father disappears, she regrets not putting in the effort to truly understand him. Ironically, she gets an earful from San Francisco felon Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow (Tagatac), who tells her that he had also believed he had time — until his mother suddenly died without warning.
The play ends with a moving heart-to-heart between Lauren and Larry. The elder Yee reveals more of his inner self to his daughter and, in response, Lauren delivers a monologue to the audience on how her father influences her and her work. “King of the Yees” is not only a tale about the importance of family, but also an extensive study into the individual. Tender and sentimental, the play makes viewers want to phone home and vocally express their appreciation.
King of the Yees will be playing at San Francisco Playhouse through March 2