Playwright Lauren Yee on New Worlds and Inspirations

A young Chinese American woman wearing a bright blue shirt is standing in the sun and looking at the camera. Playwright Lauren Yee.
Playwright Lauren Yee. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theater.
"Making my work at a time where there is just more opportunities for Asian American actors really does help my work because when I’m looking for actors, they’re continuing to work before and after they have worked with me, which contributes to the health of the field." - Lauren Yee

Lauren Yee is an emerging name in the playwright world with an already impressive and long resume. Originally from San Francisco, her semi-autobiographical production of King of the Yees just completed its run at the San Francisco Playhouse. Her play, The Great Leap, premieres at the American Conservatory Theatre March 6 and runs from March 13-31. Meanwhile, another play by Yee, Cambodian Rock Band, has just started its seven month-long run as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In a phone interview, Yee discusses her inspirations for her wide variety of plays, the thought process that went into the three aforementioned productions, and also what it’s like to be a playwright at a time where diversity and representation is improving in the performing arts.

— Lauren Lola

What prompted you to want to become a playwright?

I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. Just putting together narratives is incredibly satisfying. I realized theater was the kind of the world for me that I wanted to tell stories, but I realized that I wanted to do it with other people. Writing can be so lonely and in theatre, the reward is you work hard and you work hard and if you do your job correctly, you get to be in a room, rehearsing with other people. You get to incorporate their ideas and learn from other folks. So that was why playwriting [was] for me.

Can you give an example of someone who has inspired your writing?

I feel like it’s not just reading other plays and learning about other playwrights. I feel like a lot of my inspirations along the way have been ordinary people that have provided a window into new worlds for me that have become the inspiration for some of my pieces. I think my work is frequently interested in ordinary people and extraordinary situations.

For instance, the two plays I have going on in San Francisco right around now, King of the Yees and The Great Leap, were both inspired explicitly or more implicitly by my father. I think the epitome of an ordinary guy who [has] just intercepted with all of these extraordinary circumstances in his life. He’s a telephone man. He has worked for AT&T since he was 24 until he retired recently. But within that span of time, some of the things he has encountered directly influenced the plays that I have running now.

Your plays vary across a wide range of subject matter. Is it from the people that you encounter in your life that you get this wide variety of ideas or is it something else?

I think I’m just naturally curious about the world. I love origin stories and just how things come to be and I think I never want to do the same thing quite the same way twice. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who would write a three-part trilogy. I love for each piece to delve into a world or explored before and really show you something you’ve never seen before, whether it be San Francisco Chinatown, whether it’s post-Cultural Revolution China basketball, or whether it’s the Cambodian rock scene of the 60’s and 70’s.

I think I’m always interested in worlds that give you a little bit of cognitive dissidence that you wouldn’t think of. China in the 80’s and basketball from an American perspective, but the truth is, basketball is huge in China and always has been; almost since the invention of the game, like 120 years ago.

We’re at a time now where diversity in the performing arts is no longer just lip service. What is like for you to see your work being featured all over the country at such a time like this?

Regardless of what’s going on around me, it’s always really gratifying to see the stories that matter to you be embraced by people. I think from a logistical standpoint, I work in theater, which is working with other people, and so unlike a novelist or a poet, in order to do my work, I actually need the trained live bodies onstage to do the work with me. Being able to field really talented Asian American actors who haven’t dropped out of the game for lack of work is really important. Making my work at a time where there is just more opportunities for Asian American actors really does help my work because when I’m looking for actors, they’re continuing to work before and after they have worked with me, which contributes to the health of the field. I think it’s just great.

A middle aged Chinese American actor sits among an empty theater with velvet seats. He is looking at the camera and holding an orange basketball. The actor is BD Wong.
Actor BD Wong stars in “The Great Leap,” a play by Lauren Yee. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

What is the origin story of The Great Leap and how was it for you writing it?

My father grew up in San Francisco—he was born and raised here—and he played a lot of pickup games in the neighborhood, in the Chinese American leagues. There used to be a very strong—probably still is—Chinese American basketball presence. He was never good enough where he was going to be paid to play the game. He was never going to the NBA, but he was pretty good for a neighborhood pickup game, and he was good enough that he got to travel.

In 1981, he and his teammates, who were always Chinese American kids from San Francisco, got to travel to China to play a series of exhibition games against the best teams in China. That was a story I had always known growing up and it had always captured my attention. When I got commissioned by Denver Center to write a play for them, this was the idea that I wanted to explore more.

You hear stories when you’re growing up, but you never really ask for more details than that. This was more opportunity to say like, “Hey, tell me about what that was like when you went,” because at that point, China had been open to Western tourists for maybe less than five years. My dad and his teammates were one of the first groups of Americans to see what China looked like coming out of the height of the Cultural Revolution. I always thought that was so interesting: the experience of going to a country you’ve never been to, but at the same time, feel a deep connections towards because of what you look like, where your parents are from, and what that experience must be like; going in as the enemy, but also looking like the team you’re playing against.

That was the jumping off point. The Great Leap isn’t my father’s story, in the same way that King of the Yees is very autobiographical, but I think it uses my father’s real life story as a jumping off point to explore this community that existed in San Francisco, and also exploring their experiences.

Were there any struggles with bringing this story to life?

Two things I would note that are tricky: before I started writing this play, I didn’t know a thing about basketball. My father played it, but I am not athletic. I didn’t really watch games. I can tell you about football and baseball, but I really didn’t know the rules of basketball or why anyone watches it. For me, it was this crash course in this sport that my father loved growing up that I really didn’t understand.

I think the second thing was how to put basketball—or at least, the feel of basketball—onstage, when I wasn’t really interested in re-staging a basketball game. If you see the play, you’ll note that there are four actors onstage, and only one of them is a basketball player. The rest are either the coaches or spectators. So how do you put that feel of basketball onstage without necessarily just recreating a game? I feel like there’s nothing worse than setting up a hoop on court and being like, “Okay, the plot says he has to make the basket,” but it doesn’t go in the hoop. Can you imagine how hard that is?

So the play doesn’t actually contain basketball-playing onstage, but I think it very much has the feel of what a game is like, and that feel of being a spectator in the stands and watching a really close match.

Your play, King of the Yees, just played in San Francisco. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like writing that play, particularly the autobiographical elements of it?

In King of the Yees, there’s a character named Lauren Yee and there’s a character named Larry Yee, which is my father’s name, and it is a window into their relationship that looks very much like the relationship I have with my own father. It’s centered around his relationship with the San Francisco Chinatown community, and, in a way, I think of it as a love letter to Chinatown, which is a community I didn’t grow up in, but I kind of knew from afar, growing up in San Francisco.

That piece is about navigating your relationship with your parents as an adult and trying to capture family stories. If there’s an action I would want audiences to take, it would be to call up their parents and say, “Hey, tell me about that time that blank happened,” or “Who was so and so?” Just to begin having a curiosity for their own families and their own histories. I think that’s so true of all of us that we see our parents in one way and even if we have a great relationship with them, no time seems like a good time to ask questions and to be curious about the people we’re so close to.

So that’s King of the Yees: it’s like an affectionate, goofy, wild joy ride through San Francisco Chinatown and Asian American identity. It’s been a particular joy to bring that to life in San Francisco, because it has had other productions in Chicago, [Vancouver], Baltimore, Seattle. It has been really embraced in those places, but I think there’s something really special about putting it in front of the people that I wrote this play for and bringing people to the theater who maybe aren’t your typical theater subscriber.

Two Asian American singers are lit up on stage in the midst of singing.
South Coast Repertory premiered “Cambodian Rock Band” by Lauren Yee, directed by Chay Yew.

Do you have any other projects that you are currently working on that you can talk about?

I also have a play called Cambodian Rock Band, which is in rehearsals at Oregon Shakespeare Festival right now and that’s going to run through March to end of October. It’s exciting, because I think it’s the first time a living playwright has run the entire season at OSF. So it’s really nice to be able to share that story with so many people and Cambodian Rock Band, like The Great Leap and King of the Yees, throws an audience into a very specific world.

It’s also a family story and the jumping off point for that one is the fact that in Cambodia in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a huge psychedelic surf rock scene and it’s everything you imagine; electric guitar, bell-bottoms, the big hair, everything.

But in ’75, when the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, they also pulled out of Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge took over. The first thing the Communists did was kill all the artists. Ninety percent of Cambodia’s musicians died in four years, and the ten percent that did survive survived because they hid their identities as musicians. They did such a good job at doing that that when the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of power, their kids never knew that their mom was a lead singer in a rock band.

I was so moved and startled by this that I just wanted to dig deeper into it, and the piece uses music from the actual era of Cambodian oldies and also music by Dengue Fever, which is this contemporary LA band which [plays] songs inspired that sound. I describe Cambodian surf rock as like Jackson 5 on top of Jimi Hendrix. It’s like bubblegum love songs and shredding electric guitar. It’s amazing!

What advice would you want to bestow to any Asian Americans out there who are interested in writing for the stage?

Have confidence that you have a story that should be told, and that there’s something that you can share with people that only you are going to be able to tell in that particular way. In theatre, because that is so much about creating a community of people, try to get to know the other people who are at the same point in their careers as you, who also want to tell stories onstage. Those are people that you’re going to be collaborating with for years and years.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Great Leap premieres March 6th at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater and runs from March 13th-31st. Tickets can be purchased from the A.C.T. official website.

Cambodian Rock Band will run as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from March 6th-October 27th. Tickets can be purchased through the festival’s website.

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