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THEATER REVIEW King of the Yees
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-04-19

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Playwright: Lauren Yee. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $10-$40. Runs through: April 30

Lauren Yee's play is a chronicle of San Francisco's Chinatown that refuses to turn a blind eye to its corrupt politicians and gangster warlords. It's also a tour of the district, with exotic xenophile-pleasing sights cited by names and addresses, in addition to cute parade lions, CGI action-movie violence and silly fortune-cookie games.

Its dramatic universe encompasses the theater we occupy, along with mythical realms associated with Joseph Campbell-styled odysseys ( cf. Mary Zimmerman ). It's about exploring your roots and talking with aged parents before their voices are forever silenced. What it is not is an elegy for a halcyon past, thanks to the intercession of a clan patriarch so exuberant and audacious—is there a Chinese word for chutzpah?—that he cannot help but assume command of the narrative ( cf. Mel Brooks ).

The evening begins with characters representing Lauren Yee and her father, Larry Yee, on the occasion of the latter's 60th birthday, lamenting the legendary West Coast neighborhood's loss of its ancestral identity under pressures of gentrification and assimilation, but five minutes into their dirge, the actors playing them are interrupted by actors playing the real-life Larry and Lauren Yee—stay with me, now—who commence bickering over the content of the play-within-a-play in process. Assisted by the three fictional-persona players and flanked by the clubhouse doors of Yee Fung Toy, the isonymous fraternal organization providing community to lonely Cantonese immigrants for generations, Larry proceeds to recount genealogical tales spiraling farther and farther off-topic so that Lauren is forced to reassert control over her project. Upon returning after intermission, though, she discovers her progenitor missing, and herself charged with finding him, lest he be lost to the memory and his legacy with him.

This is a big load of meta-theatrics to pack into a mere two hours, but Goodman Theatre's world premiere production roots its spectacle firmly in the familiar—a thunderclap whenever crime boss Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow's name is uttered ( cf. Young Frankenstein ), a dance score that segues from traditional Sino-centric instruments to MC Hammer, Korean and mixed-ethnic actors commiserating on the vagaries of show-business Asian stereotypes—all blooming under Joshua Kahan Brody's direction at a velocity that ensures that our attention never wavers.

Ultimately, however, the evening belongs to real-life actor Francis Jue, whose Larry Yee emerges a mensch transcending all cultural boundaries. Once you meet him, you won't forget him.


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