As I have mentioned before – and actually recently demonstrated – I love seeing something other people have done that I would have done had I been them but I didn’t because I’m not. Still, I feel peripherally vindicated. Somebody on “my team” got it out there, and it worked. It’s like they “won one for the Gipper”, and I’m the Gipper. End of possibly unnecessary italicized foreword.) (Still listening to the Eddie Izzard audiobook.)
This opening bit is a little complicated, but I know you can handle it.
I believe in you. (Though that may have emerged snootily insincere – maybe because I am embarrassed to say it – I actually do.)
Okay. Enough flattering the readers.
When I read L.A. Times theater critic F. Kathleen Foley’s opening paragraph, reviewing a play entitled King of the Yees, that opening paragraph being,
“Lauren Yee’s play starts out straightforwardly enough: An actress playing Yee is rehearsing the play with an actor portraying the playwright’s father, Larry Yee. Suddenly, the “real” Larry Yee arrives at the theater, full of enthusiasm and unwelcome suggestions. The “real” playwright Lauren Yee can barely contain her irritation at the interruption.
I said, “This play is for me.”
Because I knew this would be not realistic drama. It would instead be allegorical hi-jinx, making a point that, if conveyed realistically, would have immediately put me to sleep. And because it wasn’t, as I knew it wouldn’t be, it didn’t. Instead, it was really fun to see.
Coming at it from a unique angle, tackling a serious issue playfully though still insightfully – that’s what I shoot for here, when I am not chronicling my struggles getting a new “Registration Certificate” for my beloved “Salvage” car.
A minor confession. (And therefore, no capitals): Last Friday, I wrote a post about a guy with the ability to balance a kidney bean on the end of his nose, worryingly wondering why he was not the best in that subgenre of entertainment, who now considers for the first time in his life whether his limitations are perhaps not the result of inherent character limitations but result instead from his, albeit impressive, not top-of-the-line natural ability. I had been thinking about that idea for some time, but it was only when that structural strategy finally surfaced in my brain that I was able to tell that story in a way I felt would be less complainy, pedantic and personally embarrassing. Playwright Lauren Yee, an unbelievable… wait, let me do this outside of the brackets. This is (feeling suddenly claustrophobic)… just too constricting.
Playwright Lauren Yee – as opposed to “The actress who portrays Lauren Yee in the play” and “The actress portraying who is supposed to be the actual playwright Lauren Yee” – who is amazingly twenty-one years old – not the two actresses, the actual playwright Lauren Yee – wanted to explore the decline of the traditional San Francisco Chinatown cultural order, as well as her secularized alienation from that culture.
It would appear that, realizing how clichéd and overly familiar a play of that that nature written in a traditional dramatic format would come off, Lauren concocted an original “fun-house mirror” construction, covering the same narrative terrain.
Yee came up with a play that is enjoyable, moving and insightful. (If not deeply insightful. She’s 21. When I was 21, my most penetrating insight was that I wasn’t a lawyer. And I needed a psychiatric social worker to pry that out of me.)
“You’re like your father, but different” is hardly an “Oh, wow!” illumination. But imagine having to slog through two acts of ponderous psychodrama to reach the same climactic conclusion.
Instead, the examination of racial identity involves – picking examples from the play at random, though not really “at random” because they are the ones I liked best:
“The actress playing Lauren Yee in the play” admits to “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” that she’s not really Chinese; she’s Korean. To which “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” confesses he is only 75 percent Chinese, and 25 percent Irish. The Chinese-Irish actor then tutors the Korean-passing-as-Chinese actress in the way to correctly pronounce the word “Chi-nese.”
“The actress playing Lauren Yee in the play” then goes on to reveal a painful, early personal experience of her mother committing suicide, and then herself being adopted, remembering a plaintive song her late mother sang to her when she was an infant, which she then sings. When she is finishes, “The actor portraying Larry Yee in the play” explains,
“That’s Miss Saigon.”
My favorite moment in the production – in which two disparate cultural rituals are hilariously smooshed together – is the sequence wherein Lauren, now heavily immersed in Chinese folkways, participates in a traditional dance routine with an older woman and lion-costumed celebrant and the older woman suddenly produces an empty liquor bottle, sticks it on top of the lion-costumed celebrant’s head and the three of them, with appropriate musical accompaniment, proceed immediately into the iconic “Bottle Dance” from Fiddler on the Roof.
Sometimes, it feels as if Lauren Yee has adopted a Second City improvisational approach, “bits” and fragments flying imaginatively in from every direction, not gratuitously but demonstrably making a point, as, in the latter example, showing that, Chinese or Jewish – “Tradi-tion!” is an enduring visceral component.
You cannot always – or more than once even – parody the dramatic expectations of a play while you are writing one at the same time – that would get old really fast and you’d be pigeonholed as the “play-parody-writing person” rather than an actual playwright. Neophyte Lauren Yee took her shot at that specialized target.
And nailed pretty much dead center.