“You don’t have use?
You don’t have power?
They will erase you from your own story.” -Larry Yee
Lauren Yee has a problem. And it’s kind of a big one. Not Lauren Yee the writer, whose very funny but ultimately unsatisfying meta-theatrical roller coaster of a play King of the Yees opened last night at Baltimore Center Stage. No, I’ll get to that Lauren Yee in a bit.
I’m talking about Lauren Yee the character, a playwright, coincidentally, whose unexpected journey to find a connection with her Chinese heritage, a connection that ultimately brings her closer to her father Larry, propels King of the Yees forward. Yeah, she’s got a problem. Her play keeps getting interrupted. By the actors, by audience members and, especially, by Larry.
You see, Ms. Yee (Khanh Doan) is planning to write a two-hander about how Chinatowns are dying, destined to become relics, their stories told first as history by those who were there, then as legend by those who weren’t. But, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
What’s a first-generation Chinese American, Yale-educated, childless young woman who is planning to move to Germany with her Jewish husband to do? Well, to answer that completely would force me to reveal the many wonderful surprises the very talented cast, the director, Desdemona Chiang, and the real Lauren Yee have in store.
The premise of King of the Yees is fantastic. A play within a play. Sort of. A playwright being written into her own work, not by herself, but by her own history and culture. Brilliant. It is overflowing with creativity and wit. It is colorful and joyous.
So why was I only in like with it, when I really wanted to love it? And why, ultimately, is King of the Yees not greater than the sum of its parts? The answer, unfortunately, is the real Lauren Yee’s problem. She makes promises she doesn’t keep. And she builds up expectations only to let us down. Ms. Yee leads us to believe that this is a play about the importance of history and tradition, about knowing where you came from, about family and home, about carrying our stories from generation to generation. But, sadly, it’s not exactly what she delivers.
King of the Yees is a series of, mostly, witty and sharp moments. Ms. Yee skewers, among other things, the Chinese, Koreans, Jews, the elderly, feminism, action movies and even Miss Saigon with a precision that would cut, were it not so funny. There are scenes that will have you howling, like one where two actors teach each other how to do Chinese and Korean accents. Or one where the character Lauren Yee and a female shopkeeper argue about who has suffered more. And there are moments of mysterious beauty, in the form of a traditional lion dance and a Sichuan face changer. King of the Yees breaks the fourth wall; it plays with structure, time and language in interesting ways. But to what end? I can’t really answer that. And that is where King of the Yees falls short.
There is much talk in the play about telling your own story, about not letting your story be taken away from you. And I desperately wanted to hear Lauren’s. But too often the play gets in its own way. Style is substituted for substance. And Ms. Yee resorts to telling rather than showing us.
At the end of the play, once Lauren has realized the story she intended to tell is not the story at all, she says it’s a little late to start something new. And for King of the Yees, that’s probably true. But not for next time, Lauren. You already have our ear.
Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
With Celeste Dan, Khanh Doan, Stan Egi, Joe Ngo, and Tony Aidan Vo. Scenic design by Carey Wong; Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi; Lighting Design by Jessica Trundy; Sound Design by Brendan Patrick Hogan and Alex Hawthorn; Choreography by Annie Yee.