Review: King of the Yees (Goodman Theatre)

| April 17, 2017

Rammel Chan and Stephenie Soohyun Park star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre           

King of the Yees

Written by Lauren Yee
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
thru April 30  |  tix: $10-$40  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Yee quest scratches the surface rather than digging deep


Rammel Chan and Angela Lin star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre

Goodman Theatre presents
King of the Yees

Review by Catey Sullivan

In making her persona the star of her drama King of the Yees, playwright Lauren Yee has created a meta-format to explore her relationship with her father within the context of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Daniel Smith star in King of the Yees, Goodman TheatreThe genre-melding is part mystery and part coming-of-age saga, a drama marked by broad comedy, steeped lightly in satire and soaked through with magical realism. Throughout, the relationship between Lauren and Larry Yee unfolds through the lens of Chinese history – both ancient and recent. The problem is that King of the Yees doesn’t dig very deep into either the the history of the relationship at its core. Instead of satisfying depth, King of the Yees offers scattershot breadth, scratching surfaces rather than digging down.

King of the Yees is also a play where some pre-show research is required if you really want to fully engage with the winding plot. If you aren’t familiar with Shrimp Boy and Leland Yee (both are infamous true-life characters who loom large in the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown) you may well find yourself scrambling to connect the dots that outline King of the Yees.

If the interior of Yee’s plot is complex, the outline is fairly simple: After her father Larry Yee (Francis Jue) mysteriously vanishes, Lauren Yee (Stephenie Soohyun Park) embarks on a quest to find him. Her search in and around San Francisco’s Chinatown is filled with magic, otherworldly spirits and history lessons that lead to personal growth.

As she searches, Yee learns to understand her father, his legacy as the “unofficial mayor of Chinatown” and as a leader in the venerable Yee Fung Toy Family Association. Founded in the 1880s, the organization is dedicated to providing community to the Yees of Chinatown. Providing everything from legal help to social gatherings, the Chinatown-based Association has branches all over the country and counts tens of thousands of members.

Rammel Chan and Stephenie Soohyun Park star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre Francis Jue and Stephenie Soohyun Park star as Larry and Lauren in King of the Yees, Goodman TheatreDaniel Smith, Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre

King of the Yees shows Larry Yee extolling the group as an essential cornerstone of Chinese-American culture. Lauren Yee reacts with an eye-roll, viewing the Association as relic approaching obsolescence.

Her travels through history and across the generation gap is marked by magic doors, dancing dragons, underworld gangsters and vibrant history lessons,

The quest is vivid and fast-paced. Nevertheless, King of the Yees stumbles by creating a journey that only skims the surface of each episode. It doesn’t help that director Joshua Kahan Brody has the ensemble often veering into way-over-the-top comedy. Jue’s Larry Yee isn’t just larger than life, he’s made with a brush as broad as a barn door. As Lauren, Park is vivacious and engaging, but she’s far more outward action than internal emotion.

The meta-scenes in particular are problematic: The “offstage” antics of Actor 1 (Daniel Smith), Actor 2 (Angela Lin) and Actor 3 (Rammel Chan) skew toward whacky hijinks. The exception to this general rule comes when Lin and Smith deliver a ferociously scathing exercise in how to act “Chinese.” The scene is a powerful (and powerfully hilarious) commentary on centuries of stereotypes and tropes.

Still, the actors of King of the Yees are frequently overshadowed by the impressive special effects brought to bear on William Boles’ minimalist set. That set is comprised of an ornate red door modeled on the door that leads into the Yee Family Association of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Thanks to the wizardry of lighting designer Heather Gilbert, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and projection designer Mike Tutaj, the door glimmers, wiggles and wavers like a golden-eyed, living creature.

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue star in King of the Yees, Goodman TheatreDaniel Smith, Stephenie Soohyun Park and Angela Lin star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre Francis Jue star as Larry in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre

The f/x don’t end with the door. When Lauren Yee goes into free-fall, Tutaj and Gilbert surround her so thoroughly with special effects, it looks as if she’s actually tumbling down a worm hole. The action is also punctuated by immersive black-and-white footage of the nefarious Shrimp Boy, and disgraced California Senator Leland Yee.

Costume designer Izumi Inaba has crafted a spectacular garment for the menacing face-changer, a haunting creature who can change faces in a millisecond. (And who is also best appreciated from a close distance. If you’re in the back of the house, you’ll miss the mind-boggling artistry.) While all these bells and whistles are quite entertaining, they tend to eclipse the actors.

There is so much that’s right about the concept behind King of the Yees. Dramas where actors of Asian origins are front and center are few and far between – and usually filled with loathsome Western stereotypes, from the doomed victims of Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly to the buck-toothed, yellowface villains of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Thoroughly Modern Millie to the white-man worshipping, gibbering naked jungle hordes of “Apocalypse Now.”

With this world premiere, Yee (the playwright, not the character) has the talent to deliver a drama that embraces her heritage, history and family with richness, depth and accuracy. That’s is what makes King of the Yees frustrating. The talent is here. The story is not.

Rating: ★★

King of the Yees continues through April 30th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map).  Tickets are $10-$40, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More info at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

Stephenie Soohyun Park and Rammel Chan star in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre

Photos by Liz Lauren




Rammel Chan (Actor Three), Francis Jue (Larry Yee), Angela Lin (Actor Two), Daniel Smith (Actor One), Stephenie Soohyun Park (Lauren Yee), Dan Lin, Karissa Murrell-Myers, Tea Ro, Wai Yim (understudies).

behind the scenes

Joshua Kahan Brody (director), William Boles (set design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design) Mike Tutaj (projection design), Adam Belcuore, Erica Sartini-Combs (casting), Tanya Palmer (dramaturg), L.C. Liao (dance consultant), Donald E. Claxon (stage manager), Liz Lauren (photos)

Stephenie Soohyun Park star as Lauren in King of the Yees, Goodman Theatre


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Goodman Theatre, New Work, Video, World Premier, YouTube

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