nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
August 11, 2007
What do get when you cross a stand-up comedy act with a one-man show about a Chinese-American man from Oklahoma trying desperately to discover his own heritage? I'm not sure either, but it is moving, funny, and educational. I actually expected more stand-up delivery than was present in this performance by Byron Yee, but it wouldn't be appropriate. It would undermine the tender story that Yee is telling about himself and his identity. The final product of his writing and storytelling is a beautiful and funny remembrance of his family and a testament to the human need for understanding.
There are plenty of one-liners and obvious jokes, such as calling himself a yellow banana-nut stud muffin when discussing racial epithets. When he tells his mom he has decided to be a stand-up comedian, she replies, "Are you sure you just not gay?" His description of Chinese guilt: "It's like Catholic guilt, but there's no God and no forgiveness." Yee even recreates his first, awkward performance as a stand-up comedian, so it's not supposed to be polished. His timing is good, but his quasi-stand-up moments feel a bit stiff. He's much funnier here when he's telling the tale of discovering the Love Ewe (a blow-up sex doll/sheep) or his shame-inspiring and outrageous audition for Grumpier Old Men ("You win some!! You dim sum!!").
There are also plenty of humorous moments while he's presenting his characters, which range from his family members to the elderly guardian and tour guide of the preserved Chinese immigrant holding center outside San Francisco. Even though his acting is a bit uneven in places, he excels at the rather quiet series of characters he uses to tell parts of his story, and he has any number of moments when his comic timing and rather impressive acting ability show. Where he really shines is in his storytelling. The way he carefully presents each person, place, and idea gives an almost fireside quality to the tale he is telling. His engaging vocal quality, subtle gestures, and gentle cadence are almost hypnotic at times. I felt a slight shiver when he mentioned the novel Black Like Me and discussed the color of skin as he rubbed the back of his hand. I ached for him when he described the circumstances of being told his father died. There's simply no way to adequately describe the impact of his performance in those moments.
Yee's writing is solid throughout. Though there are times when the story itself is slightly disjointed, it's an awfully big tale to tell, and he has done a marvelous job at making it approachable and funny while retaining the realism and tenderness necessary to do justice to his family and to himself. No director was listed in the program, so I assume Yee self-directed. That's really the only mistake I see in Yee's performance or delivery. The staging and pacing are good, but they would be improved by the consistent and objective perspective offered by a director sensitive to the very personal story Yee is telling.