(l to r) Francis Jue and Stephenie Soohyun Park. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Review: KING OF THE YEES at Goodman Theatre
By Kelsey McGrath
Lauren Yee’s KING OF THE YEES is a rambunctious odyssey that explores Chinese folklore through a contemporary lens. It brings to light value shifts between generations and a daughter’s longing to understand her father’s story. Her family’s story. Her story. It opens doors in ourselves we didn’t know existed.
Playwright Lauren Yee uses herself and her father, Larry Yee, to tell the tale; their intimate dynamic that drives the work’s adventure and makes us feel. Through fantastic and meta-theatrical quips, the audience accompanies Lauren as she ventures deeper into San Francisco’s Chinatown and further into her own mythology. Questions of belonging and community are confronted as Lauren does not know the Chinese language, and, as a result, has felt a lasting alienation. Yee investigates this self-consciousness in a Scott Pilgrim-esque manner with larger than life characters. We fall in love with Larry and Lauren as a daughter learns how to talk to a man she’s known her entire life.
The set is composed of red, ornate double doors: the entrance of the Yee Fung Toy, an obsolescent family association and symbol for community. Lauren must open these doors to find answers to her questions.
Yee’s play is brilliant. The ebb and flow of her storytelling is a joy ride, packed with humor and a self-awareness that embraces the audience.
With unparalleled performances by Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue as Lauren and Larry Yee, an authentic family dynamic is created. The generation gap is clear. When Lauren reveals that she doesn’t want children (right away at least…) our hearts break with Larry’s disappointment. But Jue displays a compassion that only fathers know how to conjure. Park gives life to Yee’s text and all the messiness: her love and frustration and questions and vigor. This playwright’s emotional adventure gives words to many of our own. Rounding out the cast are Rammel Chan, Angela Lin, and Daniel Smith, bringing joy and humor to our story in unexpected ways.
What’s important about this show is its representation of Chinese culture. When asked about her inspiration, Lauren Yee speaks of Chinatown and different aspects of her childhood that she’s never seen on stage. Regardless of the cultural contexts, the hero’s journey is clear, and we learn Lauren’s lessons along with her. Larry Yee is instrumental in easing the uninitiated into the space and the story. And while there are a number of culturally specific references, we are never lost. The love for this production is unfailing; it’s in the writing, the directing, and the acting. Yee’s compassion, questions, and yearning become ours as the play opens doors within us.