Saturday 15 October 2016

A vigorous search for self in The King of Yees
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : What is perhaps the most common life experience of people the world over? Discovering their roots. Learning about their clan. Their tribe. Particularly so for folks who find themselves "strangers in a strange land" -- not part of the dominant race or culture -- even if their family's kin have been around for generations.

When Chinese immigrants flocked to North America during the Gold Rush they were racially discriminated against by the ruling anglos : trite indisputable fact.  Considered inferior physically, intellectually and morally, the immigrant men formed benevolent and protective societies often called "family associations". The Yees are just such a clan whose international home is in San Francisco and known as the Yee Fung Toy Society (Vancouver branch on East Georgia).

King of the Yees is San Francisco playwright Lauren Yees' pursuit, lit. & fig., of her father who's gone missing, of her cultural roots through the sexist and exclusionist Yee family Society, and through her emerging identity as a playwright mining her own life story for substance.

How it's all put together : The play is actually a play within-a-play. Or a play about a play. Main characters are Andrea Yu as Lauren Yee opposite Gateway Theatre artistic director Jovanni Sy as Lauren's dad Larry. Act 1 opens with the actors ostensibly rehearsing their parts as Lauren (Donna Soares / Actor #2) and Larry (Raugi Yu / Actor #1) along with Milton Lim as Actor #3.

The "real" players interact with the "acting actors" on the eve of Larry's 60th birthday and his retirement as a techie with A T & T telephone. He has American Airlines tickets to take Lauren the next day to China to visit his father's clan's village. But not until after a birthday celebration at a local restaurant where he's reserved 50 tables for "everyone" from Chinatown to attend. When racketeering charges are laid against real-life California ex-State Senator Leland Yee whom Larry has supported for 20 years in various campaigns, Larry "disappears" himself. Fear spreads that another actual San Francisco local, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow -- dragon head of the Ghee Kung Tong (gang) -- will blame Larry for his related arrest and take revenge on the Yee family.

Act 2 is about Lauren's attempts through the vehicle of this play to find her missing dad, and herself, in the process.

What the show strives for on stage :  Biographic techniques are tricky to pull off. John Irving's novel Garp -- about Garp the writer whose mother is also a writer which induces severe writer's block in son Garp -- comes to mind. The King of the Yees is similar in structure. A playwright writes a play that includes rehearsals of a play about her life.

The audience learns some Chinese-American history along with Yee, stuff perhaps that was equally unknown or understood by the playwright herself until she undertook this project. 

Insight is derived from a 2010 interview Yee had with blogger Adam Szymkowicz in his blogsite I Interview Playwrights (Part 130). Asked to tell a story about her childhood, Yee said : "Growing up in San Francisco, I hated Chinatown. Dirty. Spitty. Crowded. Old people literally pushing you out of their way on Stockton Street. As a Chinese-American, I totally felt out of place in a place I should have felt at home in. Now I go back and I revel in the noise and trash. I'm like 'Rotten bok choy on the curb : yeah! Jam-packed 30 Stockton bus that closes the door on you : yeah!' I don't know if it's the playwright in me what wants to find some sense of authenticity, but it's an interesting change."

Yee never learned to speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. That alienated her from the ethnic environs she grew up in. Later her character is told : "In the advertising marketing world, Chinese are not isolated. Their preferences are considered so aligned with white people it's like we don't exist!" Actor #1 tells Actor #2.  King is Lauren Yee's attempts to come to grips with her invisibility.

Production values that enhance the piece :  It is common in contemporary scripts for the so-called fourth wall -- the airspace between the stage and the audience -- to be penetrated so the actors become part of the crowd either in their roles or breaking character to "chum" with viewers. Yee employs the technique repeatedly and effectively, particularly the town hall assembly sequence. On stage the dream sequences with the ghosts -- the Lum elders in monks' hoodies -- were a fun diversion. And the chiropractor / acupuncturist / herbalist piece was Chaplinesque slapstick writ large to great guffaws in the seats.

These bits all occur on a superb Pam Johnson-designed set representing the board room of the Yee Family Association headquarters on Waverly Place in San Francisco. The fifteen foot high inlaid faux-rosewood panels accompany twin mystical / magical portals -- that only the spirits of Yee elders can open -- are altogether breathtaking. Truly.

Gerald King's lighting and the hazing effects huffed through these pivoting doors -- doors of perception and reckoning -- will join Johnson's wizardry come Jessie nomination time next Spring, no doubt.

Acting pin-spots :  Director Sherry J. Yoon utilized all corners of the wide-ish Gateway stage with imagination and good follow-spot isolation. Mostly steady performances by the cast, while Raugi Yu's turns as dragon and chiropractor were particularly clever and deft. The scenes with Donna Soares trying to master the tonal nuances of the word Chi-nese! were priceless. Meanwhile one tone-deaf bit of dialogue by playwright Yee in Actor #2 describing how to speak Korean -vs- Chinese. To compare speaking Korean to "the screams of someone being raped right after having plastic surgery" is unworthy script. Whatever the playwright's gender. Why? Because it's 2016. 

Who gonna like : The ON crowd at Gateway cheered and clapped and derived great mirth from the silly antics of both the "real" Yees and the "actor" Yees. Upon exiting I encountered a former teacher colleague from nearly 45 years ago. He grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown and went to Strathcona High with world-famous architect Bing Thom who succumbed to a brain aneurism this week. 

"This show is wonderful because it reminds me of my dad who always told me I needed to go back to China to see the family village. I had to do it. And I did. And I tell my son the same thing. It's part of being Chinese," Fred told me.

Italians have clubs just like the Yee Fung Toy Society. But Italians are caucasian. This show will appeal to folks who want a deeper understanding of those whose families have made the world's Chinatowns what they are and why. To outsiders. Whether named Smith, Grabowski or, apparently, Lauren Yee. 

Particulars :  Playwright Lauren Yee.  Production by Gateway Theatre through special arrangement with Goodman Theatre, Chicago, that commissioned the script. Performances at the Gateway Theatre, 6500 Gilbert, Richmond through October 22nd. Run-time 120 minutes including intermission. Schedules vary daily. Ticket information via Gateway box office or by phoning 604.270.1812.

Artistic Team :  Director Sherry J. Yoon.  Set Designer Pam Johnson.  Design Assistant Jessica Oosftergo.  Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Costume Assistant Victoria Klippenstein.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Lighting Associate Graham Ockley.  Sound Designer Stefan Smulovitz.  Stage Manager Lorilyn Parker.  Assitant Stage Manager Yvonne Yip.  Production Properties Carol Macdonald.  Dialect Coach Derek Chan.  Technical Director Liam Kupser.  

Performers : Milton Lim (Actor #3).  Donna Soares (Actor #2).  Jovanni Sy (Larry).  Andrea Yu (Lauren).  Raugi Yu (Actor #1).  


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