The Play I Almost Didn’t See (Or King of the Yees)

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By Bri Schwartz, Event Coordinator
Graphic by Danielle B. Szabo

King of the Yees by Lauren Yee at the Goodman Theatre may have been one of the most personal theatre experiences I have ever had. I am a rare breed: a Chinese-American theatre artist. While it is normally very hard to find work by other Asian-American theatre artists, this Chicago theatre season provided some representation. It was a shock as well as a relief to see two plays featured in major theatre institutions written by Asian-American women. While Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee at Steppenwolf was a fantastic theatrical experience, it did not tell the Asian-American narrative. King of the Yees tells the story of a Chinese-American family and is written by a Chinese-American Playwright. I have nothing but utmost respect and admiration for Young Jean Lee, her success as an Asian American playwright, and her most recent production. However, Straight White Men used an overly-represented people to prove a point and is not talking about the under-represented minority that she is a part of. Lauren Yee’s show does, and I almost didn’t see it because of the show’s problematic marketing that can be seen in the play’s poster.

If I did not see the show, I would not have had the bonding experience that I had with my mom visiting from New Jersey. It is very rare that I can find a play that can captivate my mom’s interest intellectually rather than just entertain her. I want to create theatre that does both and it’s important to me that my family can experience work that mirrors what I want to do. King of the Yees did both. My mom was wheezing with laughter when two of the actors, whose character names were in fact “actor 1” and “actor 2,” were teaching each other how to do the accents of different Asian cultures. She was also nodding in agreement when these actors were discussing Asian stereotypes. The narrative that Lauren Yee creates mirrored much of the experiences that my mother, as a third-generation Chinese-American has experienced marrying a white man and assimilating more to white culture. This theatrical experience by far will go down as one of the most beautiful. When will there be another time where my mom translates Chinese to me as the actors onstage spoke it?

If I did not see this show, I would have missed out on a lot, but my critique of the poster for King of the Yees still stands.

I should have been ecstatic to find out a fellow female Chinese-American theatre artist made her way into the Goodman’s season with a story about Chinese Americans. I almost didn’t see the play until peers of mine raved about the quality of the script. Now, I’ve seen many theatre posters that make a mockery of race. However, those posters were usually for very low-budget and low-quality productions. That, or an all white creative team with poor dramaturgical work. King of the Yees is neither. King of the Yees is running at one of the highest acclaimed theatres in the country, and as we know, written by a Chinese-American playwright.

I’m old enough to listen to the mantra “don’t judge a book by its cover”. I know better than to ignore a piece based on a poster design. However, after a season of fantastic productions at the Goodman accompanied by just as fantastic poster designs.

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I couldn’t help but see this upsetting poster design for King of the Yees and assume the worst of the production. The posters I have included above from The Goodman this season includes aesthetically pleasing designs that are subtle about the complexity of the two plays. I would not use aesthetically pleasing and complex to define the poster for Yees. Let’s dissect it, shall we?

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The main character Lauren, who is also the playwright, is costumed in a red sweater with a yellow camisole, the two colors most associated with the Chinese culture. Chinese Americans only wear the colors that represent their culture right? I guess I’ve been dressing myself wrong for the past 19 years. In the poster, she is smiling but holding her hands up in a confused manner. Granted, this play does include a confused Lauren. I can assure you, however, that Lauren was NOT smiling like she is in this poster. This isn’t a stereotype, but what in the world does this say about the play or the character? The smiling confusion plays into gender roles in a high stakes situation as well. Lauren’s body language looks as if she is saying “Silly me. What can I do”? To me, it minimizes what is at stake for Lauren in this play.

Let’s talk about Lauren’s father Larry. The old man is smiling and holding up the peace sign with his index and middle finger, or the “v for victory” sign up with his one hand as well as smiling in a similar manner to his daughter. This sign, while popular among East Asian cultures, did not become popular until the 1960s at the absolute earliest, and did not gain widespread popularity until 1968 manga Kyojin no Hoshi was adapted into a film and used the sign as a victory symbol, or when American figure skater, Janet Lynn, used the sign and it was picked up by her Japanese fans. While a culture staple, it is one that was picked up by the Asian youth of a very specific generation. It would not be picked up by a man of Larry’s age, and using it as his character’s first introduction to the world is a racist stereotype.

This poster design does a disservice to the work of Lauren Yee, the Asian theatre audience she is trying to reach in conjunction with the Chicago theatre community at large. Let’s face it, the Asian American narrative in the American Theatre is something that comes around every once in a blue moon. Diverse theatre audiences could benefit from seeing a narrative onstage that is not often represented. In a play filled with not only so much culture and tradition, but also a universal tale of lost origin, the way to get attention isn’t to dumb down the marketing of the play. There is such rich culture touched upon Yee’s piece. Why simplify it to a few red lanterns and a wrongly placed peace sign?

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