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DramaWatch: A wild ride with the Yees

Profile's "King of the Yees" takes an imaginative trip through split cultural identities. Plus "Jagged Little Pill," openings, closings.


Reconciling split identities: Lauren Yee’s “King of the Yees,” from Profile Theatre. Photo: David Kinder

In his program notes for King of the Yees, Profile Theatre artistic director Josh Hecht writes about “the complexity of navigating an ‘American’ identity and a cultural identity that can feel anathema to it,” a core issue in the Lauren Yee play and one that Hecht relates to his own experience growing up as a working-class Brooklyn Jew.

As a storyteller, Yee’s way of navigating here brings to mind a back-seat driver in a bumper car. Starting out in meta-theatrical self-reference – the playwright and her actors rehearsing the very play we’re watching – the action soon goes careening in multiple directions, leaning here toward wry cultural satire, there toward comic political crime thriller, then sliding through vaguely supernatural realms into a hero’s-quest tale, all of it pitched midway between anxiety and giddiness.

The through line, though, is an assertion of the need to reconcile those split identities. In Yee’s case, those are a family identity shaped by her father, Larry Yee, a proud and dedicated denizen of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and a personal identity as an artist who has moved away from home in several senses – attending Yale, marrying a Jew, living in New York, and even preparing to move to Germany. 

The play we are initially supposed to be watching be rehearsed by a pair of performers, as Larry and Lauren, is about Chinatown’s decline, with the Yee Fung Toy Family Association, a 150-year-old fraternal organization that Larry runs in his spare time, as a symbol of hidebound obsolescence. But this very quickly gets interrupted by the arrival of the “real” Larry, who the playwright views as a distraction, sometimes an irritant. Larry’s fealty to a politician named Leland Yee serves as a symbol of his cultural myopia and then as the trigger point to the plot’s madcap turn, in which Leland is engulfed in scandal, Larry disappears and Lauren goes searching for her father – wherein, of course, she finds herself.

To my knowledge, this is the third of Yee’s plays to be staged in Oregon, following the premiere of Cambodian Rock Band at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 and a PCS/Artists Rep co-production earlier this year of The Great Leap. I was thrilled by the hip energy of Cambodian Rock Band (which featured music by the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever) and by the moral complexities of its story of genocide and memory and reckoning. Conversely, I was mostly just irritated by what I felt was poor attention to detail and overall implausibility in The Great Leap, a story set amid basketball and geo-politics that also was inspired by Yee’s father. King of the Yees lands somewhere between the two, though much closer to the successful thematic realization of the former. However loose its structure sometimes feels, its imaginative variety is winning – especially as directed here by the capable Lava Alapai – and after all its satire and silliness, it resolves with a surprisingly potent emotional force.

There’s fine work all around from a cast of five, though Heath Hyun Houghton threatens to steal the show in a brief bit as the Yee family’s revered Model Ancestor – with, in this case, a surprisingly sassy accent on the “model” part. And beautiful contributions from composer Joe Kye and sound designer Matt Wiens give the show a distinctively inviting atmosphere that never suggests Orientalist cliches.

With all that goes on – from traditional lion dances to slow-motion shootouts to mysterious visitations – I found myself thinking more and more as the play went on of … August Wilson. Though several of Wilson’s chronicles of African-American life include nods to the supernatural/spiritual, they’re grounded firmly in a rich vernacular realism. Yee’s play isn’t. But what it shares with the whole of Wilson’s grand Century Cycle is an emphasis on the importance of ancestry and ethnic culture as the doors that must be passed through to find the true home  of identity, whether social or personal.


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In that sense, both Wilson and Yee suggest that the main step in navigating identity is simply to turn and take a look behind you.


Jade McLeod and Lauren Chanel in “Jagged Little Pill.” Photo: Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade 20222

“Jagged Little Pill,” the 1995 breakthrough rock album by Canadian singer Alanis Morissette was an enormous chart success (dozens of millions of copies sold) and cultural phenomenon the aesthetic virtues of which entirely eluded me. But then, its target audience wasn’t snobby middle-aged rock critics (my lot at the time) but rather post-adolescent girls and young women with a right to be angry. 

With those songs as a scaffold, the writer Diablo Cody created the jukebox musical Jagged Little Pill, earning a Tony Award following the show’s 2019 Broadway run – which got positive reviews from even the snobbiest of critics. 


Kristina Wong in “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at La Jolla Playhouse, before its Portland run. Photo: Jenna Selby/courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse.

Last week’s column erroneously suggested that Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord was opening at Portland Center Stage, well, last week. Mea culpa. Your neglectful DramaWatcher failed to note that the main show pages on the PCS website list dates beginning with the first preview performances.
Now fully tuned up, Wong’s acclaimed solo show about group effort – the performance artist’s pandemic response of organizing a brigade of volunteers to sew face masks – really does open Friday night.


Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, Anne Washburn’s audacious and pop-savvy musing on storytelling and its function in society, is set in a post-apocalyptic future where fragmented collective memories of an episode of “The Simpsons” become first an entertainment form in their own right and eventually develop into something akin to a religion. Portland theater fans may remember a terrific 2015 run at Portland Playhouse. Now Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly directs a Reed College production.


All Classical Radio James Depreist


Avenue PDX, the Musical – an improv comedy show with puppetry, inspired by the image of Portlanders as persistently weird (and, we’re guessing, by the hit puppet musical Avenue Q) – goes for a bit of outsider perspective, soliciting its nightly audience suggestions from the coastal denizens at the Newport Performing Arts Center. 


Pestilence! Plague! History! Comedy! Photo courtesy Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals Company.

Pestilence: Wow!, a trenchant comedy about that hilarious bubonic plague outbreak in 14th century France, has been on the boards in a production by Oregon Children’s Theatre’s sometimes frighteningly talented Young Professionals. But it closes this weekend, just another flash in the pandemic.

The flattened stage: theatrical edition

Third Rail Rep continues to be Portland’s local host for NT Live presentations from London’s National Theatre (because of time-zone differences, shown here as “live-captured” digital recordings rather than simulcasts). This weekend features showings at Alberta Abbey of the Anton Chekhov classic The Seagull in a production featuring Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, plus a Saturday matinee of the Richard Bean comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again, based on William Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals.

The flattened stage: home edition

A little Seagull-related homework, if you like:

The best line I read this week

“I’ve come to think that maybe my childhood was happy mostly because it was childhood. … I believe that children arrive with their own life of the mind, and that to the extent that they get to spend time in that world which they themselves have invented—that’s pretty good. Much of the rest is roulette.”

Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker


All Classical Radio James Depreist


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.


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