The latest production of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre season, Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees, reminds me of the division between social drama and aesthetic drama that can help us to talk about the different ways in which we view and interpret theatrical productions. While this show is a boon to Artistic Director Jillian Keiley’s continued interest in the social drama of the NAC, the aesthetic side of King of the Yees suffers from a confused and muddled dramaturgy.
So what do I mean when I say social and aesthetic drama? These terms came around in the 1960s when Richard Schechner, an avant-garde director in New York City, worked with the anthropologist Victor Turner to draw connections between tribal rituals and modern theatrical productions (combining anthropology and the arts was all the rage back then).
In a contemporary sense when we say ‘aesthetic’ drama we’re talking about the more traditional aspects of art, like how well the script was written, the actors’ mastery of their craft, the beauty of the music, and so on. ‘Social’ drama is a newer concept that draws on the consequences of the drama in real life. An election, for example, can be considered a social drama, in that the candidates put on something of a performance for the electorate, everyone takes part in a ritual in which the rules are commonly agreed-upon, but most importantly the consequences of the election are something we have to live with in our day-to-day life. In aesthetic drama, this is not the case. Hamlet will always die as he achieves his goal, but we don’t spend the rest of our lives crying over Hamlet’s death and thinking about the way things could have been.
Let’s talk about the aesthetic side of King of the Yees first, or rather the more traditional content of a theatre review. The play follows at heart the relationship between Lauren Yee, very much a 21st century woman who considers her Chinese heritage important but not a defining characteristic, and her father Larry, who grew up in a time when race relations were much more problematic and cultural enclaves like San Francisco’s Chinatown offered safety as well as familiarity. As a result, the generational gap between Lauren and Larry is a cultural one too: Lauren never learned to speak Cantonese and doesn’t feel compelled to stay in Chinatown, whereas Larry considers solidarity within the Chinese-American community so important that he quits his job to spend more time campaigning for a local politician who shares their last name (though they aren’t actually related). Thus our main characters and basic conflict are understandable and relatable even for audiences not of Chinese descent (having a different outlook from one’s parents is hardly uncommon).
Unfortunately, what should be a fairly simple story to trace out is severely hampered by a script that doesn’t seem to know what style of theatre it’s trying to be. At its core, Yees has written a play about her relationship with her father but when taken as a whole it exists as a confusing narrative that’s kind of about the play about the relationship with her father (at least at first) and also kind of about the representation of Chinese individuals in the arts (like I said, it’s a wide scope).
We open with two actors, playing Lauren and Larry, starting off with dialogue à la a fairly stereotypical memory play, but quickly the ‘real’ Larry walks in and disrupts the rehearsal process, prompting the ‘real’ Lauren to emerge from the first row and come on stage. It’s all very confusing, and the metatheatricality of it all keeps being hammered home as Larry hijacks the rehearsal, inviting questions from “the audience” (actors who have been placed in the auditorium), for no apparent reason, apart from the fact that he and his daughter are on different wavelengths when it comes to priorities.
Larry’s affable nature, helped greatly by Jovanni Sy’s excellent performance, unfortunately casts Lauren in the role of the one-note nag as her distracted actors start talking with Larry and ignoring her. Eventually it transpires that Leland Yee, the politician whose senatorial bid is Larry’s pet cause, has been arrested for corruption, and a disillusioned Larry disappears into the spiritual realm that apparently is just behind the big red double doors of the gentlemen’s club in which all of this takes place. To get him back, Lauren must embark on a quest through Chinatown in order to open the doors, and then go on a journey through the spiritual realm to bring her father back.
There are a lot of reasons this script could use some dramaturgical adjustments, but I’m going to focus my criticism on the pacing and focus, which in this case directly affect each other. The first scene with the rehearsal is the longest scene in the play and while we get some expository information about the characters, their relationship, and a quick background on the history of Chinese culture in North America, nothing actually happens. The characters just talk, and while the scene illustrates the difference in outlooks between father and daughter, it does so repeatedly.
It later turns out that snippets from the lengthy conversation are useful to Lauren on her quest, but without knowing that what is being said is in any way important, the meandering talk is more tedious than insightful. It seems like Yee uses the meta device of the play-within-the-play during this scene as a means of distracting the audience from the drawn-out exposition, since it doesn’t work with the rest of the play once the plot proper actually gets started and Lauren has to get her father back. The actors in Lauren’s play have no function in the plot after the initial scene where Larry disrupts the rehearsal, yet we keep coming back to them before they actually acknowledge their own irrelevance to the plot before disappearing forever.
Besides the two or three scenes with these unimportant characters, the meta aspect of the play is only acknowledged in the second act when Lauren turns to the audience at the very end in a rather artificial-feeling “this is my play” monologue. Since the emotional payoff of the father-daughter relationship has already occurred at this point, there really isn’t any need to return to the putting-on-a-play plotline, so there probably wasn’t any need for that plotline to be there in the first place.
Conversely, let’s talk about the social side to King of the Yees, because what doesn’t work from an aesthetic perspective contributes much more to the social. The actors in Lauren’s play, for example, talk about the representation of not just the Chinese community in the arts but also Asian communities in general, with one of the actors confessing that she’s actually Korean and swapping advice on Asian accents with the other actor. The questions from the “audience” that Larry takes during the opening rehearsal scene include an “audience member” asking about the continued need (or lack thereof) for name associations (social clubs for Chinese immigrant families with the same last name) considering their patriarchal structure, and even the need for cultural enclaves like Chinatown in an increasingly globalized world. Racism isn’t a major point of discussion in this play but the characters do make references to things like cultural assimilation, for example, the moment where the actors assert that advertisers assign white and Asian demographics to the same categories (i.e. that advertising companies often use the same tactics to attract Asian audiences as white audiences).
The inclusion of the play-within-a-play contextualizes this show as hyper-theatrical, which helps to make the second act, in which Lauren must go around Chinatown to acquire items from Chinese stereotypes, a little more palatable (the Chinese herbalist Lauren visits, who “realigns her Chinese”, is a particularly stereotypical representation, as well as introducing the problematic notion that cultural heritage has a physiological manifestation- ‘culture’ is not a body part that can just be adjusted). All these instances (excepting the tired racial clichés) showcase valid perspectives that everyone should consider, although I do wish they had been integrated into the plot of King of the Yees in a way that doesn’t make them feel like a distraction.
Let’s make things more complicated: social and aesthetic drama are not separate concepts. Just as there is a certain amount of aestheticism in elections (campaign logos, every party has its coded colour), every theatrical production has a social side beyond the show itself. Jillian Keiley seems to know this well: since she has taken over as Artistic Director of English Theatre at the NAC, her mandate has included a decentralization of regional focus (productions from various regional theatres across the country, including King of the Yees, have been given the opportunity to have their work produced on a national level) rather than an Ottawa-based ensemble producing classic works (à la her predecessor Peter Hinton), and a focus on more populist-driven art forms, particularly musicals (already we’ve seen Onegin this season, and previously shows like Vigilante, Les Belles-Soeurs, and The Sound of Music).
Keiley’s understanding that the National Arts Centre has a responsibility not just to produce good art but good art that represents the diversity of the Canadian experience as well as shows that people will actually want to see is commendable and necessary for an institution such as the NAC. King of the Yees is no different in this regard: a production from Gateway Theatre in Richmond, B.C. (a suburb of Vancouver) that tells the story of a minority population questioning the need to continue the traditions that partly arose from their minority status while still trying to stay true to the heritage of which they should be justly proud. Keiley similarly programmed ‘da kink in my hair last year, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God in 2015, and Kim’s Convenience (now a CBC sitcom) in 2014, though King of the Yees tells a story of Chinese-Americans in San Francisco rather than the personal journeys and struggles of BIPoC here in Canada. The decision to devote at least one show a season to telling the stories of visible minorities is inherently good although I do worry that this attempt at outreach smacks a little of tokenism, such as we noticed with last year’s production of A Christmas Carol (being repeated this year) and its usage of performers with disabilities, given that the remainder of Keiley’s seasons until this year focused more on the stories of what Stephen Harper once obtusely referred to as “old stock Canadians”. This season however also includes the recent Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion and the upcoming carried away on the crest of a wave, hopefully signalling a decentralization of cultural focus on Keiley’s part as well as geographical focus.
King of the Yees offers insight into the past, present, and future of the Chinese-American community, but the play itself is unfocused with the actual plot only kicking into gear at the end of the first act. The aesthetic and social qualities of King of the Yees don’t quite mesh together, making for some tedious moments depending on which side you’re more interested in.
A Gateway Theatre Production
Produced by special arrangement with Goodman Theatre (Chicago)
Written by Lauren Yee
Directed by Sherry Joon
Stage Management by Susan Miyagishima
Set Design by Pam Johnson
Costume Design by Mara Gottler
Lighting Design by Gerald King
Sound Design by Stefan Smulovitz
Production Properties by Carol Macdonald
Starring (in alphabetical order): Milton Lim, Donna Soares, Jovanni Sy, Andrea Yu, Raugi Yu