Lauren Yee loses her father.
In some ways, she never really had him.
A Yale graduate and playwright, she is poised to relocate to Germany with her Jewish husband, and she isn’t sure if she ever wants to have children. As “King of the Yees” opens, an exasperated Lauren seems to be a daughter in name only of Larry Yee, a fixture of the Chinatown she left long ago.
A Baltimore Center Stage production which opened Oct. 25 and is directed by Desdemona Chiang, “King of the Yees” is a lively sprint through Lauren’s self-discovery, a mapping of her heritage more telling and colorful than found on ancestry.com.
Along the way, Lauren (played by Khahn Doan) invites the audience to laugh along with her as she pokes fun at Asian stereotypes, the misogyny of her Chinese heritage and her own privileged assimilation. The play is a tribute to Larry Yee, the real-life father of the playwright, named Lauren Yee who, yes, is a Yale grad with a Jewish husband.
The 60-year-old Larry Yee — played by Stan Egi — strikes the perfect balance between the hardworking first-generation phone company employee and the man known by his neighbors as perpetually late, notoriously cheap and possessed of the perfect Chinatown accent (don’t worry, it’s explained).
In “King of the Yees,” Chinatown is both a place and an idea, a garrison for immigrants unwelcome elsewhere, an archive of tradition, a community of celebration — and a place to escape from.
Lauren’s misadventures include participating in a traditional lion dance — executed by a cast member inside a feathery white costume, complete with bobble eyes, gnashing teeth and a floating silk body; haggling for whiskey with a stubborn shopkeeper; encountering an oddly accented chiropractor with Fu Manchu facial hair; and negotiating with a diabolical face-changing man who mysteriously flips his visage (a stylized mask technique called bian lian) while compelling her to solve a riddle under threat of having her own face removed.
Carey Wong’s stark stage has red double doors hanging above it, doors we know will descend at some point to lead who-knows-where. When they do open, Jessica Tundry’s lighting design washes the stage in kaleidoscopic colors, creating a mysterious portal to Lauren’s past.
The tempo is brisk and the cast energetic. The ensemble players — Celeste Den, Joe Ngo and Tony Aidan Vo — are shapeshifters, moving from portraying laconic actors to performing traditional dances to, in one case, becoming an actual Chinatown gangster named Shrimp Boy, and in another scene, a liquor store owner in oversized spectacles and undersized polyester pants.
The ensemble’s collective energy belies what we know from the program: they number just three.
If it sounds like “King of the Yees” leaps from one Chinese-American cliché to another, it does. But the playwright’s sense of humor and self-deprecation contain a few lessons about a group of American citizens who can feel at best undifferentiated, at worst invisible or even worse, as in the case of a recent Harvard University admissions discrimination lawsuit, encroaching.
At one point, Larry compares Chinese-Americans to Jews: “The hard work, the good food … the cheapskate.” He goes on to say that Chinese mothers are loud and controlling of their sons, while the fathers are bad at sports.
Ultimately, Larry says that members of both ethnic groups “know they gotta stick together,” lest they are erased from their own stories.
Even as the play travels back in time, through generations of Yees to the revered “Model Ancestor” (not at all the dignified patriarch you might expect), the story is lodged in the present in a way that could be alternately described as meta and self-indulgent.
Lauren speaks directly to the audience at the outset, explaining her intentions to write a play about her father. In the closing moments of “King of the Yees,” she looks at her watch, reports the outside temperature and sends us off into the chilly Baltimore air.
“King of the Yees” runs through Nov. 18 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org. On Nov. 9, Baltimore Center Stage hosts a pop-up Night Market from 6 p.m. to midnight. In partnership with the Chinatown Collective, the Deering Lobby will dish up authentic food, crafts, music and more. Admission is $10 at the door, or buy a VIP ticket to see the performance at centerstage.org.
Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.