|King of the Yees (Chris Bennion)|
King of the Yees
Through October 1, 2017
Lauren Yee, the inventive playwright of Ching Chong Chinamen, has just been named the recipient of the 2017 Kesselring Prize for playwriting from the National Arts Club. She will receive a $25,000 award and the opportunity to reside for two weeks in the historic clubhouse of the National Arts Club in order to develop her work.
She’s also got her play, King of the Yees, running at ACT Theatre, with a lovely cast including Khanh Doan, Stan Egi, Ray Tagavilla, Annelih GH Hamilton, and Joseph Ngo. She has brought her work to Washington State on numerous occasions, most often to do workshops and attend retreats for writing like Hedgebrook. She feels like a local writer.
King of the Yees is an inventive and pseudo-autobiographical play. We begin by meeting “Lauren” and her “father” (Hamilton and Tagavilla) and then immediately find out that they are playing in a play Lauren has written, when Lauren (Doan) shows up with her father (Egi) to rehearsal. The play separates into back-and-forth scenes with the actors taking a break and Lauren becoming wrapped up in a quest to find her father when he goes missing.
Yee’s plays are often about American Chinese folk or grappling with assimilation versus cultural appreciation. This one included. Larry Yee, Lauren’s father, is presented as a larger-than-life character with strong ideas and connections to his ancestors. Lauren presents herself as a much more assimilated American who is not sure that she has that much time to worry about ancestors and honoring that culture. But her search, embodied in the play, leads her to reconsider her own connection to her father.
One of the most important themes and moments in the play has her realize that she loves someone she barely knows (her father). The way Yee gets there is through her imagination or a surreal journey into magic, and includes a Chinese dragon dancer, a sacred door to the Yee Universe, and gathering articles to create a ritual as dictated by Ancestors.
There is plenty to laugh at/with in the play, and a lot of color added by costume designer Christine Tschirgi. Inventively directed by Desdemona Chiang, with sleek set components by Carey Wong, and importantly helpful lighting (to determine where “outside rehearsal” and “inside” are) by Jessica Trundy, it’s an easy, though a sometimes confusing journey to take.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the play must be staged in the round. When ACT was built, they made one of their mainstage spaces permanently in the round. “Round” works well for some productions, but frankly, it’s a strain all too often for ACT productions. It leads to some weird blocking (actor movements) where they have to keep turning around and around to talk to various audience members and that leads to some aimless wandering on stage.
Opening night, the performances felt a bit on the “pushed” side – where Egi is still finding his way into the bombastic Larry, but was over-caricaturizing a bit. Given a full week of performances, this cast will likely have found surer footing and a warmer connection with each other.
While a bit on the disjointed side, the play is meant to talk to non-Asian audiences and “explain” things we may not understand. For mostly-white Seattle, that lesson is well taken.