‘King of the Yees’ at ACT Theatre

Khanh Doan as Lauren Yee. Photo by Chris Bennion

As advertised, the central journey of Lauren Yee’s play King of the Yees bores through San Francisco’s Chinatown, as Lauren searches for her father lost in the maze of a possibly supernatural underworld. But the quest, like that of any good folk tale or fable, is just a small sliver of the real story.

Our playwright and protagonist (played on stage by Khanh Doan) is writing a play, and we’re deep in rehearsal until her dad, Larry Yee (Stan Egi), bumps down the stairs toting a box full of water bottles and campaign signs for Leland Yee. “I can’t talk right now, I’m in Lauren’s play,” he hollers into his phone.

You see, Larry is the head of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, one of the many community organizations founded by Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush era. The association’s building sits on plum San Francisco real estate and is currently Lauren’s rehearsal hall.

Nestled within a much bigger emotional and meta-theatrical picture, our hero realizes she’s been going about this play all wrong. Practical and intellectual as she may be, Lauren can’t tell this story without giving herself over to the ineffable, unpredictable palette of emotion. Lauren’s intended story was, “about my dad, about dying Chinatowns, about how things fall apart and how to say goodbye.” Early on, the play zooms in on a much more personal experience: Lauren doesn’t speak Chinese, doesn’t feel at home in Chinatown, doesn’t feel like she really knows her own father, feels conflicted about living on the East Coast and not knowing if she wants to have kids. But she’s sticking to her original plan—until Larry makes a good point, and her story starts to get away from her.

“You’re gonna write a play about Chinatown with only two people?” he asks Lauren, baffled.  

Soon there are a lot more people. When Larry stops answering Lauren’s calls, she goes searching through Chinatown and into the beyond, and ends up on a mystical, personal quest to find him again. As rehearsal dissolves, the actors who have been playing “Larry” and “Lauren” (Ray Tagavilla and Annelih GH Hamilton, respectively) become utility players. Along with Joseph Ngo, they go on to play old Chinatown denizens, a Chinatown gangster, liquor store owner, lion dancer, the family’s model ancestor—the Yee from whom all Yees are descended (and the reason Larry has supported Leland all these years—”You gotta support your community!”). Doan’s earnest Lauren offsets Egi’s ebullient charm as Larry; Tagavilla is a Seattle theatre gem, as good an actor as he is a performer—separate but often conflated skills. 

The play itself is a bit of a jumble, jumping from device to device at a head-spinning pace—a play within a play, an audience plant, supernatural intervention. Director Desdemona Chiang’s production slips between moods and modes easily, enabled by clean, clever scenic design by Carey Wong and lighting by Jessica Trundy. Christine Tschirgi’s broadly designed costumes amp up the fabulist feeling even more.

To the playwright’s credit, it’s both anchoring and funny that even as Lauren embarks on her journey to the other side, she doesn’t abandon her original story, cutting back to her actors (Tagavilla and Hamilton) waiting for rehearsal to re-start, talking shop, practicing various Asian accents and chatting about the fate of Asian actors in LA, until they realize they are eerily trapped in the Yee building.

As a whole, the play’s fun simplistic feeling belies its complex core. The stakes are narratively low but emotionally high—Larry probably isn’t going to get stuck in some sort of Chinatown netherworld, but like any good folk tale, the story isn’t really what it’s about anyway.

It’s not without fault: Do the house lights need to be up so high for so long during the play-within-a-play construct, and why does the model ancestor sound like the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon in Mulan?

But whatever its flaws, the play made me laugh and made think about my life and choices in a fundamentally different way—and that’s all I can ask of a play. “I always think I have more time,” Lauren says. One of the hardest things about becoming an adult is realizing you can’t have it all; you can’t stay in the comfort of your family life and follow your ambition. Choosing can be painful, no matter how enthusiastically your Pinterest board proclaims following your dreams. Change is rarely about addition only, though we’d like to ignore the difficult subtractions that are an equal part of life’s equation. 

King of the Yees runs through Oct. 1 at ACT Theatre.