Lauren Yee

The setting is San Francisco, Chinatown. The characters are Lauren Yee and her father, Larry Yee. On the stage are two large red double doors, the doors of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association. “This is a true story,” Lauren tells the audience.

“About my dad, about dying Chinatowns, about how things fall apart and how to say goodbye.”

“King of the Yees” is not quite a true story. It’s Lauren Yee’s metatheatrical and semi-autobiographical play-within-a-play, which premiered in 2017 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Yee ’07 is a playwright, television writer and producer from San Francisco. In 2019 alone, she won the Doris Duke Artist Award, the Steinberg Playwright Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award and the Whiting Award for her work. She was America’s second-most produced playwright after William Shakespeare in the 2019-20 theater season.

Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Yee was keenly aware of her complicated relationship to her culture. She attended Lowell High School, a public school where almost 60 percent of the student body today identifies as Asian, according to the U.S. News. Despite being Chinese American, Yee felt alienated.

“The thing that I struggled with in my childhood was feeling like an outsider in my own community,” Yee said. “The majority of my classmates spoke Cantonese and I didn’t. It felt like they had a closer relationship to culture than I did.”

While members of Yee’s family immigrated from China to the United States at different times, the oldest was Yee’s great-great-grandfather, who immigrated in the late 1800s. Since then, her family has become embedded in the community of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest and largest Chinatown in America. This family history is distinct — most Chinese Americans today cannot trace their heritage in the United States back that far because they immigrated after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. Since her family has resided in the United States for generations, Yee’s relationship with her Chinese culture is at times disjointed.

“Growing up, Chinatown didn’t so much feel to me as a place of home, but a place of alienation,” Yee said.  “It’s a community where I don’t speak the language. I didn’t feel in tempo with this community. It took me growing up and getting more comfortable with my own insecurities and sense of inauthenticity that allowed me to embrace Chinatown and recognize the beauty in it and be able to see where I could still fit into it.”

This community became the backdrop for Yee’s burgeoning writing. She read voraciously and was immersed in storytelling through television, and in high school, playwriting became an outlet for exploring themes of family and culture.

At the time, Yee’s family shared her father’s email account. Checking to see if she had received any messages, she saw an email from the Asian American Theater Company, or AATC, in San Francisco. The email was a call for new short plays. Although she did not have a background in theater or acting, Yee wrote her first short play in one day and sent it in response.

“There was something in the call that clicked for me,” she said. “I’d always loved writing, but writing for distinct character voices felt empowering.”

Her submission was accepted and the theater invited her to an evening of readings, where she heard her play aloud. Yee said that hearing her work read for the first time was a transformative experience.

“Until you see something modeled out there in the world, you don’t know it’s an option for you,” she said. “Being able to see a round table of people and not only that, but Asian-American faces and bodies telling stories together … as soon as you read it on the page, it becomes a thing.”

Inspired by her experience at AATC, Yee decided to create a theater company to put on original plays at Lowell High School. The company was named Youth for Asian Theater. Yee casted her friends as actors and produced her own plays over one summer. Like her work today, her plays at Lowell “ran the gamut,” Yee explained. They touched on history and cultural identity, love and family drama. The Herbst Theater became the venue for her plays because it was owned by the city and affordable to rent out for productions. Reflecting on Youth for Asian Theater clarified why theater was important for her community. “Who is this for?” Yee asked. “Who is the audience? What’s the goal of it?”

After high school, Yee came to Yale to hone her writing in the University’s vibrant undergraduate theater and arts community. She took classes with professors Deborah Margolin, Donald Margulies and Toni Dorfman — “a wonderful trio of playwriting professors,” she said.

In Toni Dorfman’s writer-director class, Yee worked with Josh Brody, a director in her graduating class. After graduating they became collaborators. Brody directed the first production of “King of the Yees” and helped develop other plays. “I don’t think I could have anticipated that when we were at Yale together,” Yee said. Her close collaboration with Brody offered her an unusual freedom: “I can just try to explore and fail. It makes the work so much better.”

Yee also met her husband, Zachary Zwillinger at Yale — all due to the quirk of first-year housing. Yee was in Ezra Stiles College, housed in Lawrance Hall on Old Campus during her first year, and Zwillinger in Jonathan Edwards College, housed in the adjoining Farnam Hall.

In an email exchange, Zwillinger recounted meeting Yee in the first few days of their first year. “We lived next to each other, and her suite’s back door was my front door,” he wrote. “I remember she had a very strong handshake.” From then on, the two spent time together almost everyday throughout college.

“That’s how we got to be best friends,” Yee said.

Since Yale, Yee’s playwriting work has astounded with its wit and range. “Cambodian Rock Band” follows a Khmer Rouge survivor on his return home and features Cambodian psychedelic rock from the band Dengue Fever. An earlier play, the satirical “Ching Chong Chinaman,” which was read at the Yale Playwright’s Festival in 2007, is about an assimilated Chinese American family living in Palo Alto who comes to acquire a Chinese indentured servant. Among her oeuvre is also a “slasher comedy” about a serial killer who targets young women — “Hookman” — and a story about a house with talking walls — “The Hatmaker’s Wife.”

“King of the Yees” is perhaps the most emblematic of the themes of community, family and cultural belonging that run throughout Yee’s career. It is also the most personal, drawing on her own experience and family heritage as the characters journey through San Francisco’s Chinatown. In its two-hour run time, “King of the Yees” depicts an exaggerated, character-version of Yee as she attempts to produce a play about Chinatown. The disconnect she feels from her Chinese American heritage conflicts with her father, who devotes his life to serving the Chinese community. In both the play and real life, he is a member of the Yee Fung Toy Family Association. Chinese Family Associations as they exist today are legacies of history — fraternal organizations that formed among new immigrants in the late 1800s and exerted social, political and economic influence in Chinatown.

A complex image of Chinatown forms in the play. Chinatowns in the United States were created in large part because of anti-Chinese racism, including violence and discriminatory housing practices that isolated the community. Nevertheless, the ethnic enclaves have acted as support networks for new immigrants and cultivated their own cultural identities. In “King of the Yees,” Yee believes the Family Associations and Chinatown are obsolescent. In Act II, in search of her missing father, she must journey through a whimsical version of Chinatown that houses a world of “tongs” — Chinese gangs — ancestors and riddles and comes to understand her father’s pride and love for the community.

Despite her success in writing for the stage, Yee’s career continues to surprise with her forthcoming pursuit in screenwriting — what she describes as “an exciting new challenge.” Yee worked on the writing staff of “Pachinko,” a new television show for Apple TV set to release at the end of March. The 8-part series, a multi-generational family epic about a Korean family living in Japan, is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee Yale ’90. Soo Hugh is its showrunner and executive producer, and the show boasts the talent of South Korean acting heavyweights including Oscar-winner Youn Yuh-jung from “Minari” and Korean drama star Lee Min-ho from “The Heirs.” The show will feature three different languages — Japanese, Korean, and English.

“It felt so exciting to see the experience of this family and going through displacement outside of an American lens,” Yee said. “There are a lot of exciting parallels to what it might be like being an immigrant family in America, but at the same time, ‘Pachinko’ has its own unique resonances. It was a beautiful show to work on.”

Yee is also executive producer for an upcoming TV adaptation of “Afterparties,” based on Anthony Veasna So’s short story collection of the same name about Cambodian Americans living in California. So passed away at the end of 2020 and “Afterparties” was his debut book, published posthumously in 2021. Yee described it as “a wildly kaleidoscopic, exciting, raunchy, funny take on an experience that I feel is based on his experience as a Cambodian American queer man growing up in Stockton and all the crazy characters that he met growing up.”

Yee’s foray into television writing is a natural transition from her playwriting, she said. She learned the craft of storytelling from the television she watched growing up — she recalled ensemble shows such as “I Love Lucy” and “Remember WENN” as significant influences. Still, the move into television writing was not something that Yee could have anticipated. “Ten years ago, TV as a medium was in a very different place in terms of how much room there was for writers and content and what stories they wanted to tell,” she said.

The realm of television today has changed dramatically, but if anything, Yee believes that it’s becoming more similar to theater. “There’s a greater appetite for lots of different stories,” she said. “For Asian-Americans, that really wasn’t happening when I was growing up. You had one show or no show. I think the more stories that are being told, there’s less pressure on one story to be everything for everyone.”

The new multiplicity of stories is both thrilling and a relief to Yee. “It’s exciting to hold ‘Afterparties’ and ‘Pachinko’ in two different hands and be like, this is all part of the Asian and Asian American experience,” she said.

Yee discussed her approach to writing about different cultures.

“To the best of your abilities, which may succeed and sometimes may not be successful, find something truthful that you identify with in that story,” Yee said. She referred to the experience of writing “The Great Leap,” a play about a Chinese American basketball player — loosely based on her father — and a Chinese coach who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a very different experience from her own family. “You need to be aware of what stories are already out there, whether they feel truthful, whether they feel stereotypical and overplayed and what someone from that community might be interested in,” Yee said of her process for writing the character. “Whenever possible, being open to conversations about those experiences and listening.”

Yee understands the limits of her own perspective. In “King of the Yees,” Lauren and her father Larry discuss dying Chinatowns and the play Lauren is writing. The exchange exemplifies Yee’s linguistic wit and keen insight to the dynamics of telling stories about culture.

LARRY: You talking about Chinatown, you gotta mention the whole community, make sure you telling the story for them instead of telling the story for them.

LAUREN: That is the exact same thing.

LARRY: No, there is telling the story for them and then there is telling the story for them.

When asked where that line came from — the difference between telling a story for the sake of someone else or telling a story in someone else’s place — Yee explained her thought process.

“In trying to capture the spirit of a place or a person or a memory, we are these inauthentic vessels that will inevitably have leakage,” Yee said. “You cannot tell the story fully or the way someone else, a previous generation, would tell it. But it’s about embracing who I am and what I know and how I can tell it and that’s the best I can do.”

Margot Lee is a Managing Editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. She is a junior English major in Ezra Stiles, originally from Sydney, Australia. Margot loves her cat Howl and beautiful windows.