Meet Playwright Lauren Yee

March 20, 2017

"King of the Yees" by Lauren Yee is a touching, hysterical play about a Chinese American father-daughter relationship, playing at the Goodman Theatre from March 31- April 30, 2017. This is a world premiere Goodman Commission. King of the Yees is an offbeat and electric joy ride about living in the contemporary world while honoring one’s rich ancestral heritage—and the conflict that ensues. The affable Larry Yee remains a driving force in the San Francisco Chinese American community as the head of the Yee Family Association, a seemingly obsolescent men's club dedicated to the preservation of the Yee line. His daughter Lauren, however, is dismissive of its patriarchal culture policy, despite her father’s lifelong dedication to the group. When Larry suddenly goes missing, Lauren’s desperate search drops her into a strange but familiar world where she will have to embrace the past if she wants to get her father back. Explore the vivid history of America’s largest Chinatown through the eyes of a new generation in Lauren Yee’s hilarious and touching theatrical quest to connect with her family lineage. For tickets and more information, click here.

King of the Yees By Lauren Yee Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody

What's your personal story?

If you come to see KING OF THE YEES, you'll get a lot of what my story is, so I won't spoil most of it for you.

But briefly, as an ABC (American born Chinese) growing up in San Francisco, I've often felt somewhat of an outsider in my own community, unable to speak the language or understand the customs. And this play is my way of finally grappling with that in an unexpected, joyful way.

As a writer, I love funny stories, I love painful stories. I love that line that runs between what is funny and painful and sad. I want theater that has joy that runs the gamut of emotions. I love seeing virtuosic actors doing unexpected, joyful things on stage. I tend to write plays that celebrate the ensemble, which is perhaps why I am so fond of working in Chicago. For me, KING OF THE YEES does all of those things. It is a deeply personal story but it is also so universal.

What was your main intention behind writing "King of the Yees"?

I always thought my dad deserved his own story. He's really a larger than life character and he somehow always manages to take over every room that he's in. And for twenty years, he's also been a huge force in San Francisco Chinatown and more specifically, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a Chinese American men's club that dates back to the late 1800s. His experience of Chinatown and the Chinese American community is so different from what I've seen out there in the media or even what I knew growing up, and I wanted to show this rich, maddening, wonderful version of what Chinatown is. Chinatown is at once so iconic and unknowable, and researching this play allowed me to ask all those stories about the community and about my father and our family history that I never would have gotten to ask otherwise.

Melissa Canciller (Lauren), Dan Smith (Actor 1) and Rammel Chan (Actor 3) in King of the Yees by Lauren Yee, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody at Goodman Theatre

What challenges did you face telling this story?

I actually have a fairly good relationship with my father, and so in thinking initially about how to dramatize a version of my and my father's story felt insincere. It wasn't until I really invested in what our relationship was like that the play cracked open for me. It's a view on parent/child relationships that's less of an AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY knockdown drag out fight and more like the bond that so many of us actually have with our parents: funny, idiosyncratic, heartfelt, and incredibly hilariously frustrating.

Also, I got commissioned to write this play for the Goodman Theatre in fall 2013. At the time, I knew I wanted to write about my dad, about his connection to Chinatown and the Yee Family Association, and about my relationship with him. But I didn't know what the "why now?" of the play was--why was this story bubbling up now? But then--and I won't spoil it for you--just as I was sitting down to write the play, real live events emerged that shaped what this play would become. I could not have written a better jumpstart to the play.

What challenges might you face being an Asian American female playwright in 2017?

I have had very great fortune in how my career has progressed, and because my identity (Asian American, female, all other aspects of myself) is so embedded in my work, it's difficult for me to ascertain what my career would be like if I were someone else. There's no other version of me out there for me to compare against.

But the most practical challenge is finding the bodies to inhabit my work. I would say about half of my plays contain ethnically specific (mainly Asian American) characters. And if theaters don't have access to those actors--or don't yet know who those actors are--the plays don't get done. So I'm incredibly proactive about finding the people who are right for specific parts.

And so I always love it when theaters regularly hire a diverse group of actors, because they're helping me do the work, laying down the track, building the relationships with different kinds of actors, so that when you need that Middle Eastern actor who sings or that actor who speaks Mandarin and plays guitar, you've already worked with them on five other projects so it's not a cold call and these actors already trust that you do good work.

It always galls me when a theater claims a) "there are no actors who are ______" 

and then when I give them a list, then says, b) "but are they experienced?", or "they're busy," or "they don't want to work with us." I am currently working on a play with music that requires Asian American actors who can play in a rock band. It is not an impossible task, but you need to do your homework in advance and lay down the track ahead of the train.

Chicago has an enormous amount of wonderful talent that is constantly being renewed with young actors, and so I'm excited to take advantage of that with KING OF THE YEES and other projects I'm working on.

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Mia Park
Mia Park shares her passion of discovery through teaching yoga and acting. Currently studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine, Mia is also a producer, writer, motivator, and celebrator of life. Mia has lived in Chicago for over twenty years and calls this city that works her home.

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Free tickets can be reserved on October 27, 2017 at noon at the box office, by calling 773-325-7900, or emailing Press Opening is Wednesday, November 8, 2017 at 7:30 PM. **Preview is Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at 7:30 PM. The House of Bernarda Alba will be performed in Room 403 of The Theatre School at DePaul University at 2350 N Racine Ave, Chicago, IL 60614 What's your personal story? I grew up in Tucson, Arizona as one of very few Chinese Americans in my neighborhood. I remember that my sister and I were the only Chinese kids in my whole elementary school. However, my family attended a Chinese church in downtown Tucson, and I also attended Tucson Chinese School where I learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese. I’m very thankful for the persistence that my parents had to have my sister and me grow up learning Chinese and holding on to our ethnic culture. However, growing up, I felt like I was never fully Chinese nor fully American. I didn’t feel the need to blend in with the other kids, but I also desired to connect better with others. An opportunity came up in kindergarten when the entire grade put on a show for the whole school. This was the first time that I felt like I was part of a team, part of a larger group effort to create something fun and beautiful. I remember that year, our production was called ‘To the Future and Beyond,’ and I sang the final solo of the show. In middle school and high school, I continued to take drama classes whenever possible. I loved learning about the lives of people so different from me, memorizing my lines, and sharing those stories with audiences. In college at Duke University, I decided to major in Psychology and Theater Studies, and also performed in three of the Theater Department’s Mainstage shows. Currently, I’m in my second year of my MFA in Acting program at The Theatre School at DePaul University. What's your character's story in "The House of Bernarda Alba”? My character’s name is Angustias, which means anguish or distress. She is the eldest unmarried daughter of Bernarda Alba and is already 39. Angustias is the sole daughter of Bernarda Alba’s former husband, while the rest of her sisters are the daughters of Antonio Maria Benavides, the man they are all mourning at the top of the show. Angustias’ father was rich, so when Antonio Maria Benavides dies and the property must be divided, Angustias’ share of the estate is much larger than that of her sisters. This wealth that Angustias has is then attractive to Pepe, who is trying to marry her, and while Angustias truly believes that he loves her for her, she really just wants to be loved and free from the oppression and alienation she feels within the walls of Bernarda’s house. What challenges does your character face telling this story? Angustias is constantly struggling with the antagonistic energy she receives from her sisters. No matter what she does, her sisters find some way to make her feel even more alienated and separate from the group. No one really gives her a chance to share more about herself. Angustias is always defending herself, but somehow it always comes off as offensive towards her sisters. She doesn’t feel understood. She wants her mother’s approval, but also doesn’t feel fully understood by her either. Angustias has a hard time in this story, because she doesn’t feel like anyone is on her side. How does the character overcome those challenges? Angustias changes throughout the play—I won’t give away too much, but in some ways, Angustias is redeemed from all of her bitterness at the end of the play when her sisters discover how they have wronged her. While Angustias behaved more out of spite at the top of the show, she begins to genuinely ask for help, advice, and empathy at the end of the play. Angustias overcomes her challenges of alienation towards the end of the play when she risks being judged by her mother and sisters by being more vulnerable, and seeking to find the truth, even if she gets hurt in the end. Any other comments? I hope that this play helps audience members to be thankful for the people in life who love them, to hold them close, and to try to understand each other instead of being blinded by individual desires. Why not work together? Why not be a team and create something beautiful? Life is too short not to make the most of it every day. Thank you so much for your time!
Mia Park