NAC English Theatre: The King of the Yees turns cultural identity on its head

Raugi Yu. Photo: David Cooper

The word “subversive” crops up more than once when Jovanni Sy is discussing King of the Yees, Lauren Yees’s comedy about Chinese tradition and culture in North America, which opens at the National Arts Centre next week.

In fact, he says that it was because the play is “smart and funny and subversive” that he gave the show its Canadian premiere last year at Richmond, B.C.’s Gateway Theatre, where he is artistic director.

Sy, who also plays the character of Larry in the NAC show, first encountered the play in 2015 at a writers’ retreat outside Seattle. San Francisco-born Yees was among those in attendance, and Sy took on the role of Larry during a reading of her work-in-progress. Enchanted by what she’d created, he invited her and another writer to give readings at Gateway. The audience liked her work, so Sy snapped up the show for Gateway’s 2016-17 season.

The plot finds a character named Lauren – who has largely rejected traditional Chinese ways – searching for her missing father Larry, an old-school guy when it comes to heritage. Subversion is central to the play’s structure and Yees’ exploration of cultural identity, according to Sy. In the opening scene, for example, two actors are rehearsing two characters named Larry and Lauren. Then the “real” Larry (the real-life name of playwright Lauren Yees’s father) shows up on stage, and the “real” Lauren – an actor playing Lauren Yees – leaps up from the audience.

It’s all part of Yees’s singular approach to her subject, according to Sy.  “Writers have been writing about cultural identity for a long time, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen it done in such an innovative, theatrical, subversive way. You have expectations about what kind of play it is, and then Lauren (the playwright) keeps changing it on you. It’s one of these plays where you’re not sure how you got from one place to the next. It keeps you off balance.

“A lot of plays (about cultural identity) are really quite earnest. This one starts off as earnest, but then you realize the actors are just actors and the fourth wall is broken 25 seconds into the play. It’s a play within a play, and you don’t know who the real Larry is.”

As well as being a play within a play, The King of the Yees is a kind of fantasia that incorporates magic realism, says Sy. Lion dancers, a corrupt senator, firecrackers: they rub elbows as the story, like Alice, tumbles down a rabbit hole and into a journey of self-exploration that takes Lauren through the realities and myths of Chinatown as she searches for her father and, by extension, tries to navigate the labyrinth of her own cultural identity.

This is not the first examination of Asian-North American identity across generational lines that we’ve seen in the NAC English Theatre’s programming in recent years. In 2016, Tetsuro Shigematsu brought us Empire of the Son, a west coast story about a traditional Japanese father and his non-traditional son. Before that it was Kim’s Convenience, Ins Choi’s play about a Korean-Canadian family that’s gone on to become a television series.

These and other examples speak to the robust nature of Asian-North American writing which has traditionally faced a lack of mainstream recognition, says Sy.

“We’re a significant proportion of the population that’s been underrepresented and marginalized by major regional theatres.”

That’s starting to change as marginalized groups take matters into their own hands and as the majority population slowly makes room for others. “People yearn to see their own stories come to life,” says Sy. “I think we’ve just gotten to a point where people are tired of having their whole existence denied by popular culture …. The whole Canadian cultural experiment is that all our stories belong to all of us.”

In this particular story, the character Larry is a total delight, according to Sy. “Lauren (again, the playwright) told me, ‘Think of Larry as the friendliest man you’ll ever meet.’ He has a huge heart. He exudes joy.”

That loveliness of character just complicates the cultural chasm between Larry and his daughter, explains Sy.

“When you talk about the divide between someone who thinks traditionally about preserving cultural heritage, which is Larry, and a thoroughly modern person who is not interested in that, that leads to a whole other dimension of conflict.

“Nobody is right, nobody is wrong. It’s just a difference in values, I suppose.”

King of the Yees is in the National Arts Centre’s Babs Asper Theatre Oct. 25-Nov. 11 (previews Oct. 25 &26; opening night, Oct. 27). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.