Metro Weekly

‘King of the Yees’ Review: Daughter’s Day

The marvelous madcap humor outpaces all other emotional impact in Signature's production of "King of the Yees."

King of the Yees: Ashley D. Nguyen -- Photo: Christopher Mueller
King of the Yees: Ashley D. Nguyen — Photo: Christopher Mueller

All signs point to Yees in Lauren Yee’s semi-autobiographical magical realist dramedy King of the Yees (★★★☆☆), making its D.C. premiere with Jennifer Chang’s lively production at Signature.

By, about, and chock full of Yees, real and fictional, and set partly inside a Chinatown social club dedicated to bringing Yees together, King of the Yees digs deep at one family’s roots to harvest a universal tale of daughter-father love and admiration. There’s conflict, too, but not much as the play loops through several storytelling styles, layering a play within the play, and even a version of the playwright within the play.

The playwright Lauren Yee being portrayed onstage with bubbly determination by Ashley G. Nguyen is in the midst of rehearsals for her new semi-autobiographical play King of the Yees. She occasionally ponders out loud what it’s about, which is tantamount to actual playwright Lauren Yee pondering the intent and meaning of this play.

King of the Yees: Sylvia Kwan, Grant Chang and Jacob Yeh -- Photo: DJ Corey Photographer
King of the Yees: Sylvia Kwan, Grant Chang and Jacob Yeh — Photo: DJ Corey Photographer

Occasionally, the real Yee responds, via her onstage avatar, with clear-cut declarations of what the play’s about, and, for one thing, it’s about North America’s dying Chinatowns.

Here, we’re in the original Chinatown, in San Francisco, where Yee’s dad Larry stewards the Yee Fung Toy Family Foundation, a decades-old, almost exclusively male social club and community organization for immigrant Chinese Yees and their family members. The Yee Fung Toy is part of a network of once-vital namesake-based community clubs that, reflecting the stated theme, have generally seen better days.

The chapter overseen by Larry Yee, played in a winning turn by Grant Chang, is flagging, if not dying, due to the changing times, demographics, and policies on real estate and immigration. There’s also the issue of Larry being distracted by his near-fanatical devotion to supporting California state senate candidate Leland Yee — Asian American, but no relation, and a real-life politician, first elected in 2006.

Larry is an uber-eager volunteer and self-appointed sign man for the Leland Yee campaign, and, to a fault, he puts the campaign ahead of his own best interests and those of his family. That’s at the crux of the story that the play within the play is telling, although Larry only becomes aware that his daughter’s play is about him when he interrupts a rehearsal between actors playing “Lauren” and himself.

King of the Yees: Jacob Yeh, Ashley D. Nguyen and Nicholas Yenson -- Photo: Christopher Mueller
King of the Yees: Jacob Yeh, Ashley D. Nguyen and Nicholas Yenson — Photo: Christopher Mueller

Those actors, Sylvia and Jacob, are portrayed, respectively, by Sylvia Kwan and Jacob Yeh, thus extending the play’s meta qualities to the cast, who also essay an array of other magical and ancestral characters. The entire company — including Nicholas Yenson, a comic whirlwind in a wide-ranging variety of supporting roles — keep transitions between characters, locations, and genres sharp, greatly abetted by Minjoo Kim’s lighting design, and evocative costumes by Helen Q. Huang.

Looping through stretches of broad comedy, serious domestic drama, magical realist fantasy, even a well-executed John Woo-style, slow-mo gun battle, the show hits a lot of bases but doesn’t always maintain its balance. For the most part, the zany, high-energy hilarity rules the day, highlighted by nice bits of physical comedy like the aforementioned gunfight, and a lighthearted kidnapping scene with a pair of characters tied up on the floor center stage.

The hyperactive storytelling style is intended, according to notes on the play, as a tribute to the singular way the real Larry Yee spins a yarn. Chang’s performance certainly captures Larry’s finely honed sense of Dad humor. Yet, getting back to what it’s about, really, the play ultimately lands on serious beats of familial truth-telling and confrontation that don’t register with the same impact as the comedy.

Although Larry is mainly the focus, the play puts it on the Lauren character to tell us, literally, what it’s about in the end, and Nguyen’s performance lacks the gravitational pull to drive home all the points packed into this one-two punch. About one, though, we can wholeheartedly agree with the real and fictional Lauren Yee: tell your own story, or they’ll erase you.

The King of the Yees runs through Oct. 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. A Pride Night performance is Friday, Oct. 13. Tickets are $40 to $90. Call 703-820-9771, or visit

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