Jewish roots, Chinese heritage merge in ‘King of the Yees’

July 5, 2017
Stephenie Soohyun Park and Francis Jue in “King of the Yees.” Photo by Liz Lauren
Joshua Kahan Brody. Photo courtesy of Theatre Center Group

Combine a director’s Jewish roots with a playwright’s Chinese heritage and the result is a quirky comic play that shows the two cultures have more in common than you might imagine.

That’s the case with Joshua Kahan Brody directing Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees,” opening July 16 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It is set in a San Francisco Chinatown universe well beyond Brody’s Eastern European Jewish background, but reflects abundant parallels with his family’s history of immigration and assimilation.

“I feel the same way that the play does, which is that it’s important to honor our heritage and to not forget who we are,” Brody, 32, said during an interview backstage at the Douglas. While he said he understood how previous generations might feel the need to be protective of their ethnicity and to immerse themselves in exclusively Jewish enclaves, he added, “I don’t really feel that need myself.”

In “King of the Yees,” the playwright’s assimilated alter ego, also named Lauren Yee, struggles to understand her father’s commitment to Chinatown and his dwindling civic group, the Yee Fung Toy Family Association.

Like her character, Yee grew up in San Francisco, but not in Chinatown, she said in a telephone interview. As a child, she did not speak Chinese and was less than enthused with having to attend the Yee Fung Toy banquets. She is married to a secular Jewish attorney, as is the fictional Lauren Yee.

In the play her father, Larry Yee, goes missing and her character sets out on a magical quest to find him, traversing Chinatown’s mysterious customs and politics. Ultimately, the character’s odyssey connects her with her father and centuries of ancestors in a way she never could have foreseen. In the process, the fictional Lauren enlists the help of a Chinese gangster who expresses — in a politically incorrect way — his admiration for Jews. He says he loves the tribe because they are “just like us. The hard work, the good food … the cheapskate, the mom so loud always control the son, the dad bad at sport cannot throw the ball. … The Jew know you gotta stick together, make sure they don’t erase you from your story.”

The scene is a tricky bit of social satire, but Brody insisted the references are not racist. “Lauren isn’t making fun of Jews,” he said. “Instead, she gets away with it because these things are both self-deprecating about Chinese stereotypes and sort of teasing about Jewish ones. Frankly, there’s no malice in the play, no bad intent. And I’m pretty good at getting a group of people on the same stage and making something with warmth and a great deal of love.”

Yee, for her part, said she chose Brody to direct “because he understands my sense of humor and what I find funny. He also can walk into a play called ‘King of the Yees,’ which is about Yees — which he is not — and then about Asian-American identity in the 21st century, which is something that is not in his everyday life. He approaches it with a wonderful sense of openness and curiosity and respect that allows him to support
this world.

“Then there’s also the fact that he has a Jewish background. He brings to the play a related but slightly different perspective in terms of cultural identity.”

Brody spent his early years in New Jersey before moving to London with his family after his father, an investment banker, transferred there for work.

Both sets of his grandparents were Bundists but “very culturally Jewish,” he said.

Brody’s maternal grandfather hailed from Vilnius, Lithuania, and survived Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps
during the Holocaust. Brody’s maternal grandmother escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with a bullet injury, then helped smuggle Jewish children to safety as part of the Polish resistance movement.

“My mother’s first language was Yiddish, and when the extended older relatives were around it was all Yiddish,” he said. “I regret that I never learned my family’s language, which is similar to what Lauren’s character feels in the play.”

Brody said his family’s Judaism fell away somewhat after they moved to England. “Lauren’s parents grew up in Chinatown, but she didn’t grow up there,” he said. “She experienced the lack of day-to-day interaction with those people, and the same thing happened to me.”

Even so, Brody on his own decided to continue his Jewish education for two years after he became bar mitzvah at a large Reform congregation in London. “It was because I had a real intellectual curiosity about Judaism, and also it was a bit of an identity thing for me,” he said. “I still identify so much as Jewish. Yet, I’m not religious today. So my question is, what does it mean to have an ethnic identity that is tied to a religion, but is not actually religious?”

Brody first met Yee, also 32, when both were undergraduates at Yale University. Later, they attended the theater master’s degree program at UC San Diego. There, Brody directed one of Yee’s student plays the same year he also tackled a version of S. Ansky’s Jewish ghost story “The Dybbuk.”

“To me, the subject of that play is also fundamentally about identity:  What is the soul of a person? If a person dies and the soul inhabits another body, who is that person?” he said.

At the La Jolla Playhouse last year, Brody directed Jeff Augustin’s “The Last Tiger in Haiti,” which revolves in part around the cultural havoc that followed Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. “That play also deals with questions
of assimilation, and specifically the virtue of authenticity and who gets to tell one’s story,” he said.

To understand Yee’s family history, Brody immersed himself in research, including listening to the hours of interviews the playwright recorded with her father, as well as visiting Yee Fung Toy associations throughout the United States, which were established to maintain contacts among and work for the benefit of members of the Yee clan. He also spent time with Larry Yee, who turned out to be just as exuberant and iconoclastic as his character in the play.

When Brody first read “King of the Yees,” he thought the Larry character was over the top. “And then you meet Larry, and you realize it isn’t,” he said. “This literally happened when Francis Jue, who plays Larry, said, ‘Am I doing too much?’ And we were like, ‘No, keep going. We feel like Larry is in the room with us.’ ”

“King of the Yees” opens July 16 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. For more information about “King of the Yees,” visit centertheatregroup.org.

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