Playwright Lauren Yee is having a prodigious and productive year.
In January, Ms. Yee’s play The Great Leap, submitted by Denver Center Theatre Company, was chosen from 150 submissions to make the top ten list of finalists for the 2017-2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Award and her play King of the Yees was named a finalist for the 2018 Edward M. Kennedy Prize given annually through Columbia University to a new musical or play that, in the words of the Prize’s mission statement, “…enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.”
From February through April, the co-production of the world premiere of The Great Leap, featuring Bob Ari, Keiko Green, Linden Tailor and Joseph Steven Yang played at the Denver Center, followed by a run at Seattle Rep under the direction of Eric Ting. In March, the world premiere of the Chay Yew helmed Cambodian Rock Band featuring Brooke Ishibashi, Abraham Kim, Raymond Lee, Jane Lui, Joe Ngo and Daisuke Tsuji, played to sold-out houses at South Coast Rep.
In May, Ms. Yee’s seven-year residency for New Dramatists was announced, which will feature an evening of readings and celebration at the annual New Playwright Welcome in the fall.
I became familiar with Ms. Yee’s singular voice when Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang presented her with the 2017 Kesselring Prize last November, an award which included a $25,000 check and a two week residency in the historic clubhouse of the National Arts Club in order to develop her work. The ceremony included a reading of excerpts of her plays.
Each year, the National Arts Club invites theaters across the country to nominate an emerging playwright for the Kesselring Prize who is poised for a higher national profile through his or her growing body-of-work. Atlantic Theater Company nominated Ms. Yee, who earned the Kesselring for her play The Great Leap.
Obie Award winning director Taibi Magar (Is God Is, Master, Underground Railroad Game) is at the helm of the New York premiere of The Great Leap featuring Ali Ahn (“The Path” on Hulu), Ned Eisenberg (Six Degrees of Separation), Tony Aidan Vo (Pan Asian Rep’s NoNo Boy), and Tony Award winner and Emmy Award nominee BD Wong (“Mr. Robot,” “Law & Order: SVU,” M. Butterfly), currently in previews at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street).
Sunday, May 27th is Asian American night at The Great Leap. After the 7:30pm performance, there will be a panel discussion about the play as well as representation in the arts and will feature Ms. Yee, Diep Tran (Senior Editor of American Theatre), Kristen Leahey (dramaturg of the Denver and Seattle productions), Ran Xia (assistant director of the Atlantic production). Abby Katz, Atlantic’s Director of New Play Development, will moderate.
Opening night of The Great Leap is set for Monday, June 4th, and the play has been extended through Sunday, June 24th. Click here for tickets.
Inspired by events in the life of Ms. Yee’s father, The Great Leap follows an American college basketball team journey to Beijing for a “friendship” exhibition game in 1989, and examines the drama on the court that goes deeper than the strain between their countries. For two men with a past and one teen with a future, it’s a chance to stake their moment in history and claim personal victories off the scoreboard.
American coach Saul grapples with his relevance to the sport, Chinese coach Wen Chang must decide his role in his rapidly-changing country and Chinese American player Manford seeks a lost connection. Tensions rise right up to the final buzzer as history collides with the action in the stadium.
I sat down with the San Francisco native in the Atlantic Theater rehearsal studios to chat about her whirlwind year.
Lia: What was the development process for The Great Leap and Cambodian Rock Band?
Lauren: I started working on Cambodian Rock Band and The Great Leap in the same year at the end of 2015. Both them of them kind of sprung into my imagination and were two worlds which required very different research on my part. It’s bittersweet because I am at the end of that journey of discovering what those pieces are two and a half years later. What was really nice is that they were both commissions that required a lot of work but eventually went through the whole process with the theaters that they were commissioned by. Denver Center and South Coast Rep saw the pieces through from beginning to end. That doesn’t always happen. A theater commissions a piece and it is perfectly acceptable and normal if they say, “Thank you for turning that in. Good luck.” The fact that we’ve been able to not only get them to a good place but also produce them in this wonderful way so quickly has been really gratifying and unusual.
Lia: How did your work come to the attention of these theater companies?
Lauren: I think their literary department knew about me for a while. One of my early plays got sent to them. A long time ago. I think I’d been on their radar for a while. I can pinpoint it very specifically when some sort of momentum happened.
In 2015, I got invited to Hedgebrook, this residency for female writers on Whidbey Island in Washington, for their playwriting festival. I got invited through my commission with the Goodman Theater for The King of the Yees. Denver Center, South Coast Rep and Atlantic Theater were there. It is a very leisure island with it’s own garden and they serve you meals. You sit in a barn and you read plays. It was this lovely weekend where these theater companies, even if I had been on their radar, got to meet my work in a really warm and comfortable way that made enough of an impression on them for both theaters to commission me. Those was the seeds of that relationship. Later that year I got to tackle the beginning of what those plays would be. I was fortunate to have the Goodman be the organization that brought me in.
Lia: What inspired you to write The Great Leap and how has it evolved?
Lauren: The genesis for The Great Leap is that my father, before he had kids, was only good at one thing – basketball. He was never good enough that anyone was going to pay him to do it. He wasn’t joining the NBA; he wasn’t playing at the college level. He was good enough that he could dominate pickup games in San Francisco growing up.
My dad grew up in this housing project in San Francisco Chinatown in the 70’s at a time where all the kids played basketball. He’s 6’1” and fairly tall amongst his friends. He played center and he got to travel. He played a lot in these Chinese and Chinese and Japanese American leagues that would exist in San Francisco or Oakland. Sometimes they got to go to Chicago or LA. One time they went to Taiwan to play this Taiwanese high school team.
In ’81, his coach got invited to bring over a team from America to play a series of exhibition games against the best teams in China. It was ’81. It had been 10 years since Nixon had come but Western tourism was not enormous in China. I’m not sure if it was his first trip to China or his second or third. For two weeks, my dad played exhibition games throughout the country. These games were broadcast on American television. My mom remembers her sister coming over and telling her, “Oh, Larry’s on TV.”
They just got demolished by the Chinese teams because they were playing the best teams in China. They were playing the top high school team, the top college team, and players from the Chinese Olympic team. My father remembers one player in Beijing, his last name was Moy, and he was 7’6”. He was a center for the Beijing team that they played against. He was 350 lbs. My father remembers that it was like Mickey Mouse being run after by one of those other giant characters because he literally weighed twice as much as my dad. Nobody wanted to guard this guy, he was so enormous. They got destroyed.
Each city had a different idea about what basketball was. The Shanghai teams were really fast. The Beijing teams were super tall. It wasn’t until they got to Hong Kong when he recounted, “Oh, thank God, the players are our height. My Dad’s team was all Toisan or Cantonese and the children of those immigrants who were shorter. They won by two points. That was a trip that I’d always knew about growing up. I thought it would be interesting to explore that more.
Basketball was a world that I didn’t know a lot before I started this play. It was a sport that I wasn’t really interested in. In writing this play, I had to very quickly metabolize what basketball was and learn its philosophy. It was a very apt metaphor for this story of diplomacy, two countries coming together, rivalry and competition in history and politics.
Lia: How did you choose this cast?
Lauren: We had conversations with the casting director and director Taibi Magar about who we imagined. I thought BD Wong would be perfect for this. I wondered what he was up to. I thought there was something about his character and this character that felt like it would be a good match, so we offered it to him. He accepted and we are very lucky. Ned Eisenberg, I met at the Kesselring Awards.
Lia: What do you hope audiences will take away from The Great Leap?
Lauren: I hope that they have a new perspective on history that may seem very familiar but distant from themselves. I hope that they are able to see what the play is trying to say about the power of a single person in activism. I’m also hoping that they’ll appreciate people in roles that are unexpected but seem very natural to me.
Growing up, because of my father who had a bunch of friends who are also basketball players, and I come from a real tall family. Chinese Americans playing basketball is the most normal thing in the world to me. It’s something that I forget that it may seem unusual to people. Growing up, every basketball player I knew was Chinese.
Lia: Where did you grow up in San Francisco?
Lauren: Half of the time I lived in a flat on Jackson Street. It’s like a one-way cable car track road and we lived there for about 10 years. The other half we lived in a house in the Richmond District off of Geary, where my parents still live. I went to Lowell for High School, Presidio for middle school.
Lia: What was it like for you growing up in San Francisco as a Chinese American?
Lauren: Growing up in San Francisco, there are two things you don’t realize when you are growing up there. First of all, San Francisco is a great city. If you’ve never lived anywhere else you don’t know that every place is not like hills and blue skies. And the air, the air feels very different. My brother once lived in South Korea and describes the air in Busan as being like San Francisco. The other thing is that unlike other Asian Americans, I didn’t grow up as a minority. If I felt on the margins, I think it was because I was American born or that I wasn’t the child of immigrants. I went to schools that were somewhere between half or two-thirds Asian American always. A bigger separation in terms of my identity was not being able to speak Chinese versus my classmates. That’s a much bigger divide as opposed to people that grew up in Oklahoma where there was one Asian kid.
Lia: Can you pinpoint when you decided you were going to be a writer, a storyteller, and a playwright?
Lauren: I always knew I was going to be a storyteller. As soon as I could read. I was an early reader and an early writer. As soon as I could do that, I would be writing stories. I was already writing stories even before I could write out full words. It’s something that I’ve always done. In terms of finding theater and dramatic writing, that was something that didn’t happen until high school.
Lia: Was it a particular class, teacher or event that happened?
Lauren: I wasn’t a drama kid nerd. In the beginning of the Internet, a family might share an email address, like one person might have an email address and everyone else might use that? I would use my father’s email address in high school. One day I was checking his email to see if anyone had contacted me. No one had emailed me but a colleague of his had forwarded him a call for short plays. An Asian American theater company in San Francisco was looking for short plays. I read the email and thought, “I could write a play.” I’d never written a play before. I wrote it and I sent it in. A couple of weeks later, they said they wanted to do a reading of my short play, Remembering the Zodiac, at their Lunar New Year event.
I have this theory that writers write the same story over and over and over. I think there are very different circumstances but there are certain themes and relationships and arcs that haunt us that we constantly tell over and over.
Within this piece, as early as it was, has all the themes that I am interested in as a writer- we’re in the past, we’re in the present; family relationships; the transmission of information between generations.
I asked my Dad for a ride to a rehearsal where they were going to do a table read of all the pieces. As soon as my father hears that I want to be dropped off at night to a room full of adults that I’ve never met, he said, “You can go, but I’m going to come with you.” It was mortifying as a teenager. We park, we get there. They’re all adults and I’m 15. My dad’s sitting there. It was embarrassing. We sit there and listen to all they plays. That was my first experience in theater. It was that kind of thing where you see everyone around a table and you see that this is all you need to put on a play. This is wonderful. I thought I’d love to do this again and I need to figure out ways to make this happen again.
Lia: In your acceptance speech for The Kesselring Award, you gave shout outs to the actors who have helped you shape your plays.
Lauren: I love including other people as soon as possible in the process. It helps me so much to figure out what should be in the piece. You get to see the imprint of different people and different people’s voices on a piece and I find it very exciting.
Lia: Another theme in your plays is father/daughter relationships.
Lauren: In general, I find parent/child relationships very interesting. No matter who you are, everybody has some relationship or some feelings about their parents even if they don’t have kids. I’m really interested in parent/child relationships with a lot of affection and yet… I think it is something more people can relate to than the August Osage County version of parent/child relationships where they just literally want this person to die. Recently, starting with King of the Yees, not all of the pieces I’ve written are father/daughter relationships, but there is something that I’ve been able to pull out of my own experiences when thinking about what would make a dramatic situation in a play because my father is such a character. There are so many things about him that I wonder about or just don’t understand.
Lia: Your father was present at your very first theatrical experience. He is untraditional as a Chinese American father because he has supported you throughout your arts career. He plays very heavily in your plays. How does he feel about that?
Lauren: For a long time I didn’t tell him that King of the Yees was going to be about him. I told him it was a play about Yees. I was doing Yee research. He was very helpful. He would say, “ You should talk to so and so Yee over here.”
I figured at some point I would need to tell him that there is a play about him because he’s going to find out eventually or maybe he suspects. I was visiting San Francisco one time and we were driving. A lot of our conversations happen side by side in cars. I said, “So this King of the Yees play, you’re in it.” He’s like. “Oh?” His response was, “I’m not going to tell you what to write about.” And that was it. There was nothing else. That is very typical of who my father is my parents, both of them, are very supportive in practical ways. They’re not creatures of the theater themselves. Maybe they’ll see Jersey Boys or The Lion King and my plays but they are not people who regularly see theater and subscribe to the New Yorker and read the review. They are very practically helpful. If there is something I need, or there is support I need, or when I was younger –“You need to hang up your posters, this is how we are going to do it.”
In that way, the lessons that I’ve taken from my father who is such a creature of the community and loves interacting with people, that’s one thing that I feel like I’ve gotten from him is the idea of how do you gather people, how do you make them feel welcome. Those are lessons that are always very helpful in the theater. Being able to see potential in an actor- that’s special.
Lia: What was his reaction to the King of the Yees?
Lauren: He came to the workshop production in Chicago. At first somebody said, “Do you want to sit by your Dad?” I said, “Nope! I want to be several seats down from him.”
My father shows his love in terms of tasks. “Do you need a ride to the airport? Do you need me to pick up some food for you?” That’s how he shows he loves you. There are not going to be long conversations about this is how it made me feel. The love is assumed. I think he enjoyed it. I asked him what his favorite parts were. There is a fight choreography sequence that he really loved because it reminded him of The Matrix. Some of the stuff that actually happened to him in the play, “He said that was scary ‘cause that was real.” It’s not like we’ve talked about the play a lot. He’s been very supportive in his own way.
He did see a reading of The Great Leap, which is less of the story of Larry Yee and more of the story of people like Larry Yee who would play basketball in pickup games in San Francisco. After he saw it, he said, “Oh are we done? Have we written enough plays about dad?” He’s got a lot of good stories.
Lia: When you were first casting Cambodian Rock Band, you were told that it might be hard for you to find Asian Americans to play in a rock band but you have a phenomenal cast. What has it felt like for you to process?
Lauren: It feels really good to employee a lot of Asian American actors in roles that are distinctive and that are challenging for them. Just because someone is great at guitar and can sing – it’s an added bonus that you can do those things really well, but here is something that’s going to give you new skills and showcase you in this particular way. That feels really great.
Being able to do Cambodian Rock Band in Orange County, which is so close to Long Beach because you have the largest population of Cambodian Americans in the country in Long Beach, it made that particularly special. I found that the younger generation of Asian Americans when invited and they feel it is worth their time, will come out and will totally support the work in droves. It has to feel like something you can’t miss.
Cambodian Rock Band was developed through the Crossroads Program, which is about giving a playwright the opportunity to deeply investigate Orange County, in whatever way. When I did my initial research there was a lot of the stuff that came up. Over and and over for me was the Cambodian American community and Cambodian Rock music. But at the same time, I could have written about anything. There were no parameters. My play is not set in Orange County.
Chay Yew will direct it at Oregon Shakespeare Festival starting next March and that will run until the end of October. There will be a production of Victory Gardens directed by Marty Lyons in the spring. It will get to live again, which is really nice.
Lia: How was castmember Joe Ngo integral to the development of Cambodian Rock Band?
Lauren: Joe is an actor that I have known for a couple of years. I met him when he was in grad school in Seattle. When I started working on CRB, he was really excited to hear about the piece. He said, “This is my story. I’m Chinese but my parents were born in Cambodia, they lived through the labor camps. This is my story.”
For the past couple of years, I’ve gotten to build this play around him and his talents. He also happens to play electric guitar. He owns the Gibson that he plays in the show. He is someone that embodies everything you need in that protagonist.
Other people will play it. There are plenty of Asian American actors who have the skills to play it but there was something really special about being able to do the play with him first, knowing his family history. This play allowed him to get more closely in touch with his Cambodian roots. His family is ethnically Chinese even though his parents were born and raised in Cambodia, went through the trauma that so many other Cambodians went through, but at the same time he’s always felt not quite sure of his relationship to that history because he is not ethnically Cambodian. It’s wonderful to see the ways he’s been able to give voice to that story and connect with the audience members.
Tickets for The Great Leap are now on sale. Regular tickets begin at $50. Order online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues).
Playwright Lauren Yee received her bachelor’s degree from Yale University, and her MFA in playwriting from UCSD, where she studied under Naomi Iizuka.
Lauren Yee’s play King of the Yees premiered at The Goodman Theatre and Center Theatre Group, followed by productions at ACT Theatre and Canada’s National Arts Centre. Upcoming productions include Cambodian Rock Band at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Victory Gardens; The Great Leap at the Guthrie, American Conservatory Theatre, Arts Club, InterAct Theatre; King of the Yees at Baltimore Center Stage, SF Playhouse; and The Song of Summer at Trinity Rep. Other plays include Ching Chong Chinaman (Pan Asian, Mu Performing Arts), The Hatmaker’s Wife (Playwrights Realm, Moxie, PlayPenn), Hookman (Encore, Company One), In a Word (SF Playhouse, Cleveland Public, Strawdog), and Samsara (Victory Gardens, O’Neill Conference, Bay Area Playwrights Festival) and The Tiger Among Us (MAP Fund, Mu).
She was a Dramatists Guild fellow, a MacDowell fellow, a MAP Fund grantee, a member of The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, a Time Warner Fellow at the Women’s Project Playwrights Lab, the Shank playwright-in-residence at Second Stage Theatre, a Playwrights’ Center Core Writer, and the Page One resident playwright at Playwrights Realm.
She is the winner of the Kesselring Prize and the Francesca Primus Prize. She has been a finalist for the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the ATCA/Steinberg Award, the Jerome Fellowship, the PONY Fellowship, the Princess Grace Award, the Sundance Theatre Lab, the Wasserstein Prize. Her play The Hatmaker’s Wife was an Outer Critics Circle nominee for the John Gassner Award for best play by a new American playwright. Her work is published by Samuel French.
Ms. Yee is a member of the Ma-Yi Theatre Writers Lab and will be a 2018/2019 Hodder fellow at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. She is currently under commission from the Geffen Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Center Theatre/LCT3, Mixed Blood Theatre, Portland Center Stage, and Trinity Rep. Her work is published by Samuel French. www.laurenyee.com.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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