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Signature’s King of the Yees is eye-opening insight into Chinese American cultural assimilation through generations

Magical realism and original humor to add to the wonderment.

Ashley D. Nguyen (Lauren) in King of the Yees at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

ALEXANDRIA, VA-In one of the most refreshing new productions by playwright Lauren Yee (Cambodian Rock Band), we are gifted with an insider’s view of Chinese American culture. It is very much her story. Set in San Francisco, it tells of a young Yale-educated playwright penning a story of her father, Larry Yee (Grant Chang), a neighborhood activist and amateur genealogist determined to advance the family name. Larry’s connection to a 150-year-old Chinatown social club manifesting mystical powers proves instrumental in Lauren finding her roots. And though he is no relation to a local politician running for office, Leeland Yee (a reference to a real-life character), they share the same last name. Larry, believing in the strong ancestral culture of his elders, becomes Leeland’s exalted gofer and supporter.

Nicholas Yenson (Model Ancestor) in King of the Yees at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

There is a strong connection to Larry’s respect for the ancients and his desire to convince his daughter, Lauren (Ashley D. Nguyen), that her destiny lies behind the club’s imposing red door. Between Lauren’s search for her own identity and Larry’s determination to prove his ancestral roots lie some of the most hilarious characters ever created – some are younger generation, others are elders who reflect past cultural norms – and ancestral bugaboos.

Jacob Yeh (Erhu Player) and Ashley D. Nguyen (Lauren) in King of the Yees at Signature Theatre. (Photo by DJ Corey Photography)

That the playwright pokes fun at everyone proves the universality of her theme. Fortune cookies, twerking lion dancers, ancient rituals, a Chinese gangster (the real-life “Shrimp Boy” Chow!), and an acupuncturist/herbalist make appearances, shuttling Lauren headlong toward her goal of understanding her father and finding her cultural identity. No one is spared skewering in Yees’ cleverly representational imaginings.

Ashley D. Nguyen (Lauren) in King of the Yees at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

References to Chinese immigrant heritage play nicely with flashback memories of mid-19th century San Francisco and Lauren’s father’s connection to the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, which he is determined to keep afloat. Program notes tell us the association and its many chapters still exist throughout the United States.

King of the Yees is an eye-opening insight into Chinese American cultural assimilation and its subsequent generational struggles – the loss of identity and the keen awareness of rapidly gentrifying Chinese neighborhoods. The playwright employs magical realism and original humor to add to the wonderment of Lauren’s fraught journey to know her father, affectionately drawing each unique character to reveal their strengths and foibles. Her approach results in a super-fast pace and highly physical comedy executed perfectly by its super talented, very much in sync cast. This cleverly constructed play is acerbic, witty, fresh as a breeze, sharp as a tack, and I absolutely loved it. Ditto for the audience, who roared in appreciation and wonderment.

With Jacob Yeh as Actor 1, Sylvia Kwan as Actor 2, and Nicholas Yenson as Actor 3 and Fight Captain. Directed by Jennifer Chang; Scenic Design by Tanya Orellana; Costume Design by Helen Q. Huang; Lighting Design by Minjoo Kim; Sound Design and Original Music by Matthew M. Nelson; Assistant Director Gregory Keng Strasser.

Highly recommended. One of the best comedies of the year!

Through October 22 at Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703 820-9771 or visit

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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