By Beatrice Williams-Rude
For theater aficionados the place to be Sunday, Nov. 5, was The National Arts Club, where the Kesselring Prize was awarded to luminous Lauren Yee. The prize, which includes $25,000, is presented annually to a playwright whose work has been produced but who is not yet known nationally. Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, Nicky Silver, David Auburn, David Lindsay Abaire, Lynn Nottage and Will Eno number among previous winners and those receiving honorable mention.
The 2017 event opened with a warm welcome from NAC president, Linda Zagaria, which was followed by remarks by special guest artist Regina Taylor. Then came what the audience was most eager see: excerpts from works by Lauren Yee. Scenes from King of the Yees, The Great Leap, and Cambodian Rock Band were performed by a splendid cast of seven.
The works were varied and demanding showing the vast scope of Ms. Yee’s talents, which, happily the actors were able to demonstrate.
Lauren Yee has a probing eye playing with stereotypes, such as how Koreans, Thais, Cambodians and Chinese people view one another. Even Jews and the Irish are in the mix.
And what a sensitive ear! Not since GBS wrote Pygmalion has anyone had so much fun with language. In The Great Leap,which is about basketball, there is a hilarious exchange in which expletives—usually deleted—are translated literally, utterly confounding the translator.
Lauren Yee tackles big themes–father-daughter relationships and assimilation among them–with the precision of a surgeon, but one who uses laughing gas. This is not wry smile or chuckle material; it’s screamingly funny, laugh-out-loud comedy.
But the multifaceted Lauren Yee also deals brilliantly with tragedy as in the Cambodian Rock Band, which concerns the Kmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
The performers, all splendid, were Joe Ngo, Jeena Yi, Francis Jue, Jennifer Lim, Daniel K. Isaac, Tobias C. Wong, and Ned Eisenberg as Saul, the expletive spewing coach.
The split-second timing and otherwise splendid direction is by marvelous Michael Parva, who choreographed the entire ceremony including where audience members should sit. Among them was Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, which is producing Lauren Yee’s play The Great Leap in May.
Presentation of the award was by David Henry Hwang.
This is to thank the judges: John Guare, Anne Cattaneo and Lynn Nottage and the Kesselring Prize Committee: Arnold Davis, Douglas Friedlander, David Glanstein, Colleen Katz, Charlotte Kent, Linda Selman, Ava Warbrick and Marguerite Yaghjian.