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‘King of the Yees’ a wild ride through SF’s Chinatown

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From left, Rinabeth Apostol, Francis Jue, Krystle Piamonte and Jomar Tagatac are charmers in San Francisco Playhouse’s “King of the Yees.” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

Playwright Lauren Yee has called her autobiographical show “King of the Yees,” onstage in a local premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, a love letter to her family and to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

And it is. The hyper-local comedy charms from the get-go, starting with Lauren herself (played with sincerity and sass by Krystle Piamonte) introducing the show, standing in front of two large red doors of the Yee Family Association, a 150-year-old cultural group to which her father belongs — and cannot let go of.

Lauren says she’s written a play about her dad, about a dying Chinatown and about how things fall apart.

They do, kind of. In the often hilarious first act, in which the house lights are up most of the time and the players riotously converse with the audience, Lauren is joined by three Asian actors in her play (the wonderfully multi-tasking Rinabeth Apostol, Jomar Tagatac and Will Dao) and by her upbeat, affable, opinion-sharing dad Larry (the utterly delightful Francis Jue, who was so great in “Soft Power” at the Curran in 2018), who’s about to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Their wild discussion touches on myriad aspects of life in Chinatown, past and present, from Larry’s staunch support of politician Leland Yee (Larry quits his job as a telephone worker to put up campaign signs for Yee); the power of gang leader Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow; to how local institutions, like the venerable restaurant Empress of China, are shutting down.

It’s undeniably funny, but there’s not much of a plot.

In Act 2, a plot does kick in: Things go awry literally and figuratively, when Larry goes missing and Lauren embarks on a winding journey to find him.

Lauren, who doesn’t speak Chinese and is married to white Jewish man, must figure out a way to open those red doors. It involves obtaining strong whiskey, sweet oranges and loud firecrackers, and it’s convoluted.

And at the conclusion, when Lauren sums up how she feels about what happens in her play, she’s not entirely convincing. Though she has amassed has fascinating facts, details and emotions about her family’s Chinatown, they don’t coalesce.

Still, this San Francisco Playhouse production directed with an appealing playfulness by Joshua Kahan Brody has plenty of moments of delight — and a colorful lion dancer, too.

REVIEW
King of the Yees
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Kensington Hotel, 450 Post St., second floor, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 2
Tickets: $35 to $125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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