A Conversation with Lauren Yee
When you see King of the Yees, the latest work by playwright Lauren Yee, you’ll either feel like Larry Yee is your father, or you’ll wish he was. Now having its world premiere at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the play is a two-hour journey through Lauren’s changing relationship with her dad, imbued with sharp emotional insight and unrelenting joy. It’s hard not to be swept up in the exuberant warmth as we follow Lauren Yee (the character) through San Francisco’s Chinatown, searching for a deeper relationship with her father…and good, cheap liquor.
We sat down after the show’s third preview to talk about representation, the future of Chinatown, and being a character in your own play.
Kelly Wallace: This is the first full production of King of the Yees. What’s it like to see that after it being in development for years?
Lauren Yee: I feel like it’s been such a joy and privilege to have seen this piece through from the very beginning with The Goodman Theatre and do it all the way up until the world premiere. How often does that happen? We started it when it was just an idea and then they commissioned it…we had a reading, then a workshop. I would say this play has been through the process rather quickly, but at the same time, I think it’s been like three and a half years since I started thinking about it. It’s a reminder of how theater is sometimes not nimble. I feel like theater having the ability to respond to the world it lives in is a great characteristic for theaters to have.
KW: When you first started brainstorming this, what was your process like taking this from an idea to a script?
LY: I knew I always wanted to write a play about my father. I always thought he deserved to have his own piece. And then when I started writing it, I didn’t really know what the “why now” of it was or what shape it was going to take. Then, coincidentally, some of the real life events that happened in the play happened, just as I was starting to sit down and say, “why now.” My father has been dedicated to this community and these political causes for years and years, what is the “why now”? It’s almost like you sit down to write the play and then the universe rolls out the answer in like a wonderful way.
KW: When did you show the script to your father?
LY: Late in the process. I think my father first saw it when we did the New Stages workshop production, which is fairly late in the play’s evolution. It had been around for awhile, and I think at first I told him it was a play about Yees. I said it was about the Yee Family Association. And when he heard that, he was like I know how I will help you and put me in touch with all the different Yee branches across the country. I got to meet these very similar men at very similar organizations around the country who were very much like my father but not quite. Like, I got to see the bizarro versions of him. Doing the play was actually my strange way of getting to know my father, in a very roundabout sort of sense. I didn’t say to him, I want to write a play about you and know you better. But I said, I want to write a play about other people named Yee. There was a point at which I told him and that I was writing this play and it’s about him. And I remember his reaction to it. We’re a very non-confrontational family, and I think we were driving in the car, and I was like, Oh, this play is about you, and he said, Oh…okay, and kept on driving. I think, luckily, it’s a portrayal that’s filled with a lot of affection.
KW: You can definitely tell it comes from a place of extreme warmth.
LY: Yeah, so I felt more comfortable about that. Also, Act II is all of my father’s favorite things in one play. That also feels like a gift I’m giving to him, and hopefully to other people.
KW: There’s a frustrating tendency for people to say this is a Chinese show, this is a Black show, this is a gay show…whereas we’re supposed to accept the universality of every play about straight white characters unquestioningly.
LY: This play is very definitely set in a very specific world with a very specific aesthetic and in that kind of very specific story…it’s still all of us. This play is a play for anyone who has been through that relationship with their parents where they’re coming of age, have a great relationship with their family, but at the same time, there’s this awkward transition from your parent parenting you to you going out into the world on your own and saying this is who I am, let’s meet each other as adults. I feel like that’s something everyone goes through. What’s also interesting is that this play very clearly refracts Lauren’s, and my, experiences growing up as an American in San Francisco with many different references. The play touches on everything from Sesame Street to Greek mythology to “Thriller” to kung fu movies…it’s kind of a hodgepodge of all the interests I had growing up as a child.
KW: Was it hard to write yourself as a character?
LY: I think it was kind of fun. The interesting thing is that when I first started I thought that in order to write the play, I needed to make it very dramatic. My first draft was making the relationship between father and daughter much more tense and dysfunctional and I thought I was writing my own August: Osage County where they hate each other and they don’t know one another. I think that the story I’m capable of telling is the story of a father and a daughter who love each other a lot, who have a great relationship, but have never been able to connect in the way that Lauren wants to. I feel like that is so much more reflective of a lot more people.
KW: Is it harder to cut and edit things from this as opposed to some of your other work?
LY: Yeah, I think so. I think the play always continues to delight me, just because it’s a lot of things that I love and have a very strong relationship to, obviously. But at the same time, it’s been a lot easier for me to separate myself from the story than a lot of people would expect. When actors embody these roles, they worry I’m going to be offended or that they’re doing it wrong, and I feel like we’ve assembled such a lovely, open-hearted group of actors, that I never worried about that. I always believe that they understand what the play is.
KW: What was it like to try and cast someone to play your father?
LY: We got lucky very early on. One of the first workshops I did of this piece was with Francis Jue, whose background is very similar to mine. His parents were born and raised in San Francisco, they lived in Chinatown, he grew up outside of Chinatown, he’s a Chinese-American kid from San Francisco. In addition to being a really transcendent performer, he also just inherently gets the world that the play is set in because that’s what he experienced growing up. I don’t think that’s necessary to do the part, but I think it gives it this wonderful texture.
KW: Have you been to Chinatown here, since you got to Chicago?
LY: I have! I went to visit the Chicago Yee Association. It was great, it was the same struggles my father goes through. It’s like…no one wants to join, I didn’t want to join, but they guilted me into it. But once you have the right connection, there’s this incredible generosity that happens. They take you out, you’re like family. I think that’s kind of the two sides of this. Chinatowns are like any other ethnic or specific closed community. To an outsider, it can seem kind of unwelcoming, but as soon as you have the right way in, the world opens up. I find those organizations throughout the United States to be super interesting.
KW: Do you still struggle with balancing holding on to the traditional parts of your community while not standing in the way of forward motion?
LY: Yeah, I think it’s something I struggle with all the time. Every single human being related to me lives in San Francisco. My brothers, my cousins, my parents, all their siblings. We’ve been in San Francisco for like a hundred or a hundred and fifty years. So, for me, there always is that struggle of living outside of that community and not giving my children the same experience that I grew up with. You couldn’t go into a restaurant without somebody knowing someone else. My father walks through San Francisco and people recognize him on the street. I can’t give them that.
KW: Was the play always a “show-within-a-show”?
KW: What made you decide that was the right way to structure the story?
LY: I think the play, thematically, always seemed to be about representation and how to tell a story and how to represent something specific and idiosyncratic and complicated onstage in a nuanced way. It felt like in order to tell the story of Chinatown, viewing it through the lens of wondering how do we tell this story seemed very important.
KW: There’s a joke in the show where your dad answers the question about who the show is for with “the Jews”! Who do you think the show is for?
LY: I think there’s always joy in seeing audience members who are Asian-American or from San Francisco or have a very specific firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in the play. There’s a joy in that they’ll just get some of it in a way that other audience members don’t. But I am really interested in sharing this story with all different kinds of people. It’s a play for anyone who dearly loves their parent and finds them so totally frustrating. If someone could see the show and think, that’s my father, or at the end of the play, if they leave and want to call their parents and start asking these questions…that would make me happy.
KW: The line where the father says “if you don’t vote, you never know what could happen”…was that always in the show? I would imagine it gets a very different reaction now.
LY: It didn’t mean anything before!
KW: The whole audience had this sort of mournful laugh.
LY: Before you didn’t get a reaction to it at all. It was like, oh yeah, of course. But I think that particular joke plays differently. It’s always been a part of who my father is and what he believes in. Whoever we are, we need to represent and exist in the world. If you don’t demand that, you don’t get to exist.
KW: Where did you, real Lauren Yee, land on the question of whether or not Chinatown is still something that needs to exist?
LY: It’s complicated. I think Chinatown, over the next ten, twenty, thirty years will always be shifting. I’m not one of those people who thinks we have to hang onto something because it has existed before. Theaters die, organizations die, because nobody needs them anymore. But I feel like what we can do, in positive ways, is figure out how to open up those communities and get people whose interests might intersect with it in there. For example, it’s very hard to join the Yee Fong Toy Family Association. I wish that process were more open, it’s just very hard. I feel like the more that we share these stories and the more we’re talking, the more information gets passed down. As far as Chinatowns in particular, you do have more mainland Chinese folks coming in and being part of Chinatown. And then you have new, specific enclaves. Here in Chicago, a lot of the suburbs have a lot of Chinese immigrants moving in. I think Asian-American identity in the United States will continue to evolve and I think it’s just a reality that you have to adjust with it. In ten or twenty years, there’s going to be an even larger mixed-race population. I think it would make me sad if that wasn’t considered a part of what Chinatown and what Chinese identity is.
KW: What do you really want to see from plays and playwrights in the future?
LY: I want to see plays do what only plays can do. There’s so much good TV and film going on right now, amazing stuff, and I think we could do what they do, but we’re not going to do it as well. That’s not what theater does best. Theater is best when it celebrates the act of live performance and sharing it with this live audience who is assembled here tonight and sharing the space with you. The more we can invest in events or experiences that can only happen in person, the better.
Lauren Yee returns to Goodman Theatre, where her play King of the Yees appeared in the 2015 New Stages Festival. Her plays include Ching Chong Chinaman (Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Mu Performing Arts, SIS Productions and Impact Theatre), The Hatmaker’s Wife (Playwrights Realm, The Hub, Moxie and AlterTheater), Hookman (Encore Theatre and Company One), in a word (rolling world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theatre and Strawdog Theatre Company), Samsara (Victory Gardens Theater, Chance Theatre, Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwright Conference and Bay Area Playwrights Festival) and The Tiger Among Us (MAP Fund and Mu Performing Arts). She was born and raised in San Francisco and currently lives in New York.