Lauren Yee ’07 is an established Chinese-American playwright whose repertoire includes a number of highly esteemed plays such as “Ching Chong Chinaman,” “King of the Yees” and “The Hatmaker’s Wife.” She writes about a variety of issues ranging from heavy topics — such as identity and race — to more whimsical ones like the life of a hatmaker. Upon graduating from Yale as a double major in English and theater studies, Yee went on to earn her M.F.A. in playwriting from UCSD. She defines her life as “writing plays, except when I don’t.”
Q: What was your childhood like, and how did you first get into writing and playwriting?
A: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, even when I was really little, and I’ve always been someone who loves stories and how they come together. I didn’t fall into playwriting and theater specifically until high school, and when I encountered theater, it was this amazing intersection of everything I enjoyed about writing, plus you get to be with other people and not in a room by yourself. The writing isn’t alive until you are in a room like this, and as soon as you get bodies in here, it becomes a piece.
Q: Were your parents supportive of what you wanted to do? How did they react?
A: My parents have always been folks who have been pretty supportive of the things I pursued. I think they themselves were never great students, and so they had no preconceived notions about what me or my brother should be doing with our lives. If I were a beekeeper, they’d be also totally happy with it. They were the ones who, for my first show, were the ones folding the programs, or building the sets for me. They’re not theater people, but they’ve always been very supportive in their own ways.
Q: I know you attended Yale as an undergrad. What was your experience like?
A: I had a great time. You know, it’s where I met my husband — we were next-door neighbors freshman year. I mean, it was also a place where, I think despite it being a great school for theater, it took me a long time to get used to the idea of what theater means, and how to be a good collaborator. There’s a whole social, interpersonal part to theater. Interestingly, during my time at Yale, I think I felt much more comfortable and excited by what was going on in the Asian-American community rather than the theater community. It was here, in the Asian American Cultural Center, that I felt like I found my home.
Q: What has been the work you’ve been proudest of so far?
A: I think I like a lot of my plays, but this most recent play that I’ve been working on, called “King of the Yees,” is definitely my most autobiographical play. Therefore, it’s a play that I really wanted to get right. It’s a story about me and my father and dying Chinatowns, and this play is a love letter to my family but also to Chinese culture in America. And in the 21st century, what do you do with these institutions and relics and artifacts that your parents and grandparents have passed down to you?
Q: Expanding on the inspiration behind “King of the Yees,” how does Asian-American identity play a role in your writing?
A: I would say half the time my writing is specifically about identity and culture and what it means to be some sort of other in America — and half the time, my writing has no relation to that at all, which I think is wonderful. Being an Asian-American writer in the 21st century hopefully also means that you get to write things that are not about race, because there are so many other things that I am, and am interested in, and so there is a certain joy in saying, “I’m going to write a play that has nothing to do [with] being Chinese-American.”
But I also think something that is super important to me, as a playwright and as someone whose occupation and privilege is to put people on stage, is the opportunity to [showcase] people who may not normally get to be seen on stage. That’s huge. I remember as a child, when I would watch TV, I would flip through the channels, and if there was an Asian-American on the TV — it didn’t matter if it was a commercial or a kid’s show or what — I would stop and I would watch it, because I think we, as human beings, want to see ourselves represented in the world. I think if you [go] through not seeing yourself on stage, or represented in the world, it does feel like you’re invisible.
Q: Obviously your journey isn’t over, but tell me about your journey toward becoming an established playwright so far. Were there any difficulties along the way, specific memories you have?
A: It always still feels like you’re on the journey of trying to become the writer or the artist that you want to be, but I think a big step for me was coming out of college and [writing] this play “Ching Chong Chinaman.” It was actually my senior thesis, and it was the first step, saying, “Here I am.” This is something that I’m really proud of. And being able to see that up on stage was wonderful. Ever since then, I feel like [playwriting] is a career like anything else — it’s like rock climbing a very long wall, in that it’s about those tiny steps that bring you a little closer, and you have to enjoy the journey on the way.
Q: How would you describe your work?
A: I think my work varies from play to play, but something that all my plays share is that they’re a little darkly funny, they’re a little sad. They’re really interested in different formal structures that you can use to put a play together.
Q: And what do you mean by these different formal structures?
A: I’m interested in plays that really embrace theatricality, that you couldn’t see a TV show or a movie of, that really are a piece of the theater. So, I think for me, that means that we really embrace the fact that it is a play, that these actors are sharing space with you and that there are so many wonderful things you can do in theater, that an audience will go along with, that you can’t do in a movie or TV show.
Q: Tell me about “Ching Chong Chinaman.” How were you inspired to write it? What is the play about?
A: The play was initially about this concept of gold farming in World of Warcraft, this video game where people can pay currency — real money — to other people in order to get coinage or some sort of benefit in the game — you hire people to basically play the game for you. And so a lot of these relationships are Americans or Westerners paying people in China or other developing countries where time is worth so much less.
I was really fascinated by this idea, and I started writing a play about this family, this white, American family. Gradually, one by one, the characters became Asian-American, and that seemed like a much more interesting path to take. To have this family that has basically imported a young Chinese man but doesn’t understand him, doesn’t speak his language — it just seems so much more interesting to have this Asian-American family who feels like they are a part of America, but are a visual minority. You know, that no matter how much they think they fit in, any casual observer would be like, “No, you’re always going to be Asian, always going to be seen as some sort of other.”
Q: So what are some of the things that you are currently working on?
A: I think my next play will be about a Cambodian rock band. The actors will play a rock band — I think instruments will be on stage. But it’s about a rock band in the 20th century, right around when the Khmer Rouge were coming into Cambodia and throwing the country into these four years of communist rule during which they said, “We are going to kill all the musicians and artists!” And so, during that time, 90 percent of these musicians were killed. [But] some of the music that they made right before that time remains, and I’m in love with that music. I think it’s such an interesting part of history that people don’t know about, that there were rock bands in Cambodia.