In Charles Yu’s 2020 novel Interior Chinatown, a Chinatown neighborhood is configured as a Hollywood set: it’s simply an Orientalist background for the real drama of Black and white actors. Despite this, the Chinese narrator watches his father grow old in this caricature world. The narrator says of his father, “No one in Chinatown [is] able to separate the past from the present, always seeing in him (and in each other, in yourselves), all of his former incarnations, the characters he’d played in your minds long after the parts had ended.”
For Chinese millennials, Chinatown continues to be a source of familial love and tension. How can you reconcile your parents living in a place that feels fake and gaudy to you? Why does embracing Asian identity often feel like putting on an outdated costume? Lauren Yee boldly confronts the theatricality of Chinatown—and of Chinese identity itself—in her play King of the Yees, now showing in Arlington’s Signature Theatre. While Charles Yu slyly uses a hybrid screenplay-novel form to discuss hybrid Asian American identities, Lauren Yee doubles down on metatheatricality. She uses every fourth-wall-breaking trick in the book to simulate the binary-breaking lives of Asian Americans. The results are dazzling, messy, and alive.
The show begins with characters and information that quickly unravel. In a pool of light, actor Sylvia Kwan introduces herself as Lauren Yee, the playwright of the show we’re watching. Kwan says that we’re in the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, an organization in San Francisco’s Chinatown dedicated to immigrants with the last name Yee, although the club is quickly becoming “obsolescent” with its aging membership. Actor Jacob Yeh steps in and introduces himself as Larry Yee in a thick Chinese accent. That’s when actor Grant Cheng walks through the audience saying, “I can’t talk right now. I’m in Lauren’s play. Lauren’s play!” in a less-thick Chinese accent. Cheng falls down, the lights go up, and actor Ashley D. Nguyen rushes to the stage yelling “Daddy!”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Cheng actually fell down—but no, he’s yet another actor. It turns out, within this production of King of the Yees, Ashley D. Nguyen is playing the real Lauren Yee, and Grant Cheng is playing the real Larry Yee. In this production, Kwan and Yeh are actually stage actors who are workshopping a show within the show. It’s a bait-and-switch for the audience that prepares them for a show full of surprising twists that hold up dizzying mirrors to the playwright and the audience.
The shifting relationship between Lauren Yee and her father provides the emotional fulcrum of the play. Larry Yee is about to turn 60 and is devoting more and more of his time to both the Yee Family Association and helping the campaign of state Senator Leland Yee. His life revolves around Yees and Chinatown: both things his daughter feels estranged from. Lauren is writing a two-hander play that’s critical of her father, and she is about to make a big move with her white husband. She’s even changed her last name from Yee to Zwillinger—an indication that, unlike her father, she’s willing to let go of the family and neighborhood that has previously defined her.
Because of its rock-solid emotional core, Yee’s play is free to experiment and spiral into different storylines. The show has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sensibility to its themes; Yee tackles the struggles of perfectionism in writers, the burden of representational politics, the whiteness of theater audiences, the dangers of pan-Asian casting, and more.
King of the Yees actually works best when all of its unruly parts don’t cohere, when the show’s meta-textual inquiries clash into each other abruptly and absurdly. For example, interstitial conversations between Kwan and Yeh, both playing the actors from the opening scenes, are pitch-perfect satires of self-absorbed actors still facing structural inequities in the theater industry. Yet similar to Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, there’s an abrupt stylistic shift in the second act—and here, the second act’s tight structure deflates some of the show’s madcap energy.
Jennifer Chang’s direction helps ease the stylistic gap between acts, building up extravagant and funny moments within the show’s second half. Scenic designer Tanya Orellana has shifted the Signature’s ARK Theatre to feature a prominent central stage surrounded on three sides by seats; Chang wisely moves the action around the stage in a way that implicates and interrogates audience members.
Chang’s direction really shines in the beginning, though. The show’s first half-hour (by far its best) unspools at a breathless pace, as more and more issues divide Lauren and Larry Yee. Nguyen grounds the action by being overwhelmed with the show’s rapid-fire tone, and Cheng uncannily resembles Asian men from my own family—those who bring so much charisma and laughter into a room that they can steamroll any opposing thoughts. Kwan, Yeh, and a third scene-stealing actor, Nicholas Yenson, seamlessly transition through many roles to support the two leads, and all form a true communal experience.
Without giving too much away, the second act revolves around Lauren attempting to reconnect with her father by traveling through a funhouse version of Chinatown. She encounters stylized, exaggerated versions of Chinatown residents: gang members, elders, shopkeepers. Although King of the Yees was first produced in 2017, this Signature Theatre production can’t help but self-consciously reference the surreal Asian stories that have dominated cinema recently, especially the Oscar-sweeper Everything Everywhere All at Once and the animated favorite Turning Red. There’s been backlash to the immense acclaim of both movies: do Asian women really need to do martial arts to win an Oscar, and does every Chinese coming-of-age story have to feature mystical animals?
I initially felt hesitation when seeing martial arts and mystical animals pop up in King of the Yees. Yes, Asian writers should be able to lovingly mock our own culture, but do we have to do it in this way again? But unlike cinema, theater offers a tangible presence, a sense of the real people lurking behind both grotesque and wonderful facades. When I watch Ashley D. Nguyen’s beautiful performance at Signature Theatre, I’m watching an actor playing a playwright trying to connect with her dad, written by a playwright trying to connect with her dad. Maybe there’s no real, essential Lauren Yee hidden in this layering; maybe the real Lauren Yee only emerges from this layering. The same could be said of Asian American identity itself. Maybe it’s only when you combine the outdated costumes and former incarnations and theatrical parts and the kitchen sink that a collage forms something true.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
King of the Yees plays through October 22, 2023, in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$93), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.
The program for King of the Yees is online here.
Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Signature will no longer require masks inside the theater for most performances. To accommodate our patrons who need to attend performances where the audience is fully masked, we have scheduled selected performances where masks are required inside the performance spaces. For King of the Yees, masks are required on Tuesday, October 17, at 7:30 PM (Discussion Night). Signature’s complete COVID Safety Measures can be found here.