Playwright Lauren Yee is having her best year. She’s won more than $400,000 in literary prizes and her plays are being produced more than any other playwright this season besides Shakespeare and Lauren Gunderson.
In July, Yee was named a Doris Duke Artist, an accolade that comes with $275,000.
Her popularity with artistic directors is evident in the Twin Cities, where four of her plays are being produced over an 18-month span — a rarity for any living playwright. The Guthrie staged Yee’s basketball-themed family drama “The Great Leap” in January. “The Song of Summer,” which orbits a rock star and his girlfriend, opens Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre. Actor and director Michelle O’Neill will stage Yee’s “The Hatmaker’s Wife,” a surreal comedy with talking walls, for Ten Thousand Things in May. And in June, the Jungle Theater and Theater Mu join forces to produce “Cambodian Rock Band,” Yee’s music-soaked mystery about a refugee’s search for his daughter.
“She’s on fire,” said Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s artistic director. “She’s got the gift of writing substance with comedy. She doesn’t forget that she’s in showbiz, but she also knows that theater is a way to change attitudes and behavior. And her imagination knows no bounds.”
Reuler has been a fan of Yee since he encountered her work when she was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. That’s where the Bay Area native earned her master’s degree in playwriting. Mixed Blood commissioned Yee to write a play that they hope to get up in the next season or so.
Born in San Francisco to Chinese-American parents, Yee knew she wanted to tell stories in theater as a teenager. She wrote her first play at 15. She majored in English at Yale, where she met her future husband, attorney Zachary Zwillinger. The couple live in New York with their 10-month-old daughter, Zadie.
While Yee has spent only a month at a bungalow writing retreat in Otter Tail County, she considers the area an artistic home. And for good reason. Yee is an affiliate writer with the Playwrights’ Center. And her work has been championed not just by Reuler. “Ching Chong Chinaman,” Yee’s inventively funny breakout play, had its world premiere at Theater Mu in 2009.
Yee’s sly mix of comedy and seriousness as she centers Asian-Americans in complex, humor-producing quandaries prompted playwright David Henry Hwang to declare that “the fourth wave of Asian-American playwriting has arrived.”
Don’t tell that to Yee.
“The way that I think about it is if every year I do something a little more exciting or out there than last year, then that’s a good thing,” Yee said.
Artists sometimes liken their works to giving birth. But Yee doesn’t, because that would make her something of a bad parent.
“One of the joys of being a playwright is that I get to make the story, but once the story’s gone up once or twice, you let it go,” Yee said. “It’s for someone else to now parent. It’s great that the stories can live on without me.”
“The Song of Summer,” the Mixed Blood show, was spurred by recent copyright infringement suits in the music industry, including “Blurred Lines,” the big hit by Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. that drew a suit from the Marvin Gaye estate. In the play, a rock star reunites with a high school friend, reigniting a flame.
“It’s a story about family, homecoming and notions of success,” Yee said.
But it also is about those songs, like “Crazy in Love,” “Party Rock Anthem” and “Uptown Funk,” whose ubiquity on car stereos and radio one can’t escape during the summer months.
“Those songs are so random,” Yee said. “They come out of nowhere and can be anything.” Remember “Macarena” or “Gangnam Style,” anyone?
It’s not just Yee’s curiosity that has gotten her this far but her playwriting skill and ability to make people laugh or break their hearts.
Now 33, accolades have followed. This year’s awards to Yee include the Whiting Emerging Writers Award and the Steinberg Playwright Award, each with a $50,000 purse, and the $25,000 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
How much has she won?
“Honestly, I don’t always remember exact numbers but I have a general sense,” Yee said. “It’s rewarding and gratifying to be recognized for the work.”
The honors, and the cash they have provided, have led Yee to reconsider how she thinks of herself as an artist.
“I always imagined I would be a playwright at night and a CPA or something in the day,” Yee said. “I’m pretty organized and disciplined. There are times when I’m thinking about a project and I put the pieces together like a producer.”
Now, she gets to be a full-time playwright.
“That’s the part that’s unexpected,” Yee said. “Theater is taking up more space in my life and given me opportunities to do work at a level that I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined.”