One of my favorite places in the great city of San Francisco is Chinatown.
There is a history and romanticism that comes with the lanterns that adorn Grant Avenue. Or the festive celebrations that take place around lunar new year, with colorful lions and piercing firecrackers that pop up at any point in the day.
With gentrification a topic throughout the country and the fear of cities losing their true personalities to outside wealth, there was one place in Chinatown that feels like it hasn’t changed, and that’s Portsmouth Square. The last time I visited, it was on the kind of glorious day that can only be found in our little corner of the world. The Square was filled with both elder and young Chinese people while the intoxicating sounds of the erhu permeated the slightly chilled ocean air.
To hear the character Lauren Yee tell it, it’s only a matter of time before all this disappears. Cultural institutions all over the country are feeling the effects of bigger bankrolls coming in and buying up all the good real estate, small shops and longtime family-owned restaurants now being replaced by the gentrified flavor of the month. Do I really need a trip to Chinatown to buy souvenirs I can snag on Amazon for less? Sadly, plenty would say no need to make the trek.
The Bay Area premiere of “King of the Yees” is loaded with a ton of laughs and some powerfully poignant truths. Playwright Lauren Yee’s script is full of rich pathos, brought forth by a phenomenal, tight cast of five. While for the bulk of the play, the set takes on a minimalist tone, director Joshua Kahan Brody juxtaposes this with a clear meta-theatrical presentation style that dips and darts all over the theatre.
The young Lauren Yee (a gentle yet driven Krystle Piamonte) is presenting a play about her father Larry and has cast actor 1 (always solid Jomar Tagatac) to take on the daunting role of a man who is well known as San Francisco supervisor Leland Yee’s personal poster hanger and fierce supporter.
The play that character Lauren is prepping for has a lot of loathing – the death of Chinatowns all over and a narrative that focuses on her quirky, punctual and enigmatic dad, full of curious Chinese stories. There is also a disconnect from the life of her father, and consciously or not, they both seem to be pushing away from each other. Her life has progressed beyond the enclave of her upbringing – a Yale education, Jewish husband and a life and future that will take them to Germany. Maybe there will be kids, maybe there won’t. Her surname Yee is now a memory, Zwillinger is her present and future.
While the play kicks off mostly in opening house light, in strolls her actual dad Larry (a most excellent turn by the charming Francis Jue). He is certainly taken by all of the nice white folks who made the trip, and quickly turns on the charm, passing out some bottles of water and voter registration forms, even connecting deeply with an audience member about Chinese surnames.
This is where Yee’s play goes in some wondrously strange and interesting directions, challenging the linear form of playwriting to great effect. In addition to the various characters played by Tagatac, joining him are both Rinabeth Apostol and Will Dao. All three of the talented actors take turns stealing scenes, delving deep into many trope-like characters who have adorned Chinatown. There is Apostol’s eccentric liquor store lady who sells some seriously good, cheap whiskey, Dao’s chiropractor and his humongous needles that work very, very fast, and Tagatac’s take on the infamous Shrimp Boy, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2016 for murder and other charges.
One other criminal doesn’t make an appearance, but greatly affects Larry and that’s Leland Yee himself. How could Larry not support him? Leland is also Chinese, shares a last name with him, and that cannot be discounted. After all, Yees are not Wongs, who seem to grow on trees based on sheer numbers alone. And they are not Lums, who have some serious moxie in Chinatown’s upper crust. The Yee, despite the fact that Leland and Larry aren’t family, have to stick together.
But once it’s found that Leland has been arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, it’s Larry who disappears, forcing Lauren to circumvent the unknown. She must navigate a place where there is minimal connection for her, a place that has a ton of problems that can be cured with a future in Germany.
Any child has a hard time understanding a parent’s motives, and Lauren is no different. Why does her father keep such a strong connection to this place? Why do these doors matter in the grand scheme of things? As Lauren gets closer to finding her dad, he continues to stay metaphorically out of reach, with a painful scene in which they have a strained phone conversation.
It is these moments where Jue shines brightly. He is a true theatre actor loaded with range, someone who can charm you with his laughter or break your heart with his discoveries. And only through Larry’s love for his community, Lauren discovers the love for who she is. For children of immigrants, it’s often hard to toe the line between two worlds. Your heart is American, but your roots are Chinese.
There will be a time when the love we share won’t be enough. And as we see those who shaped our lives get older, and as we age along with them, we realize the importance of love more than ever – love for our families, love for our cultures and love for the moment. To this end, there are a few lines in Yee’s writing that have and will stay with me for a long time, hitting me quite personally.
Someday, Portsmouth Square may look very different. But today, the sounds of the erhu and companionship of a people are a San Francisco I never want to disappear.
If those sounds ever get lost, one can only hope that there is another generation right behind that will burst through the doors to find and rescue that love once more.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Playhouse presents “King of the Yees”
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody
The Word: Equal parts hilarity and poignancy, the show is a mysterious family drama that examines our love of family and culture.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $35 – $125
For tickets, call (415) 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org