By Danny Globerman
American playwright Lauren Yee’s new work, King of the Yees is about a lot of things: father-daughter relationships, discovering one’s roots, Chinese history and culture. In a less obvious but no less important way, it is also about changing who and what audiences expect to see on stage.
The San Francisco-born, Yale-educated Yee, who is barely into her 30s, has been drawing a lot of critical and popular attention of late. With a string of awards as well as runs Off-Broadway, she is widely considered to be a rising star of the theatre. Just last month she was awarded the prestigious, $25,000 Kesselring Prize for playwrights “on the brink of national recognition.”
King of the Yees is a measure of her rapidly-growing success. Barely a year has passed since its first professional production by Gateway Theatre in Richmond, B.C., and already the off-beat comedy has been staged in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and now, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Built around fictional versions of Lauren Yee and her father, Larry, King of the Yees follows Lauren as she embarks on a wild bid to locate her missing dad in Chinatown. “It sort of begins as almost a very conventional, historical Chinese drama and then kind of explodes into something that’s not quite expected,” says Andrea Yu, who stars as Lauren. “It’s actually a bit of a madcap adventure.”
The more and more we tell our own stories, the more diverse and varied perceptions there will be of Asians on stage.
An adventure the playwright describes as a “joyride” with surprising twists and turns featuring lion dancers, ghosts of ancestors and a search by Lauren for not only her father, but her Chinese culture as well.
The play’s journey to Canada’s national stage is no less surprising. King of the Yees might not have ever made it to Ottawa if not for the fact NAC English Theatre Artistic Director, Jillian Keiley, just happening to be in Vancouver last October and decided to drop by the Gateway Theatre to catch the play.
“She came by and it was just happenstance. We had no designs to tour it,” explains Jovanni Sy, who is Artistic Director of Gateway and also plays Lauren’s father, Larry, in the play. “We just thought that we’d do our production and it would be over. To get another life is really quite extraordinary. It’s such an unusual occurrence.”
It is also unusual for audiences to see a play in which the entire cast is Asian-Canadian. At a time when there is growing criticism over the under-representation of actors of Asian descent in movies, television and theatre, King of the Yees may be doing more than simply entertain.
“It is an all Asian-Canadian – or Asian-American when it’s done in the United States – cast and that’s really rare. We get a lot of people coming to the show and going like ‘wow, I’ve never seen so many modern Asians on stage,'” says Yu with a laugh. “The more and more we tell our own stories, the more diverse and varied perceptions there will be of Asians on stage.”
I think it’s hard to deny that Asian-Canadian performers have historically resided on the margins. So for us to be representing British Columbia and Asian-Canadians on a national stage is hugely meaningful.
“It’s personally meaningful to me because I think so much of my 25-year theatre career has been about trying to promote inclusion in our theatre,” says Sy. “I think it’s hard to deny that Asian-Canadian performers have historically resided on the margins. So for us to be representing British Columbia and Asian-Canadians on a national stage is hugely meaningful.”
Sy believes audiences are more than ready for greater diversity on stage. While King of the Yees tells a story specifically rooted in Chinese culture, he and his cast mates say its themes, such as the love between a father and daughter or searching for one’s roots, are universal.
“My personal belief is that all of our stories belong to all of us. That to me is the definition of what it is to be Canadian.”
King of the Yees runs until Nov. 11, 2017 at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St). Tickets cost $15–75 online.