As background to this involving tale of one man’s search for his identity as a Chinese-American, comic thesp Byron Yee describes his early years living in Oklahoma City. “Where I grew up, I was one of only three minorities: Me, a black guy and a smart guy. My apartment was Chinatown.” Utilizing an effective array of projected slides, the engaging Yee chronicles his evolution from an assimilated American lad who had no interest in his heritage to a deeply involved seeker of all things to do with his past. Ably guided by Glen Chin’s minimalist staging, Yee takes the audience on the often hilarious and irreverent, yet deeply touching journey of a young man who went to San Francisco in 1990 to become a standup comic and found himself face to face with a cultural background he never knew he had.
Dividing his chronicle into five sections, Yee starts by relating the events that brought him to San Francisco, including his initial tentative effort at standup at Holy City Zoo (where Robin Williams got his start) and a ragingly funny anecdote about being asked to audition to play a Chinese caterer in the film “Grumpier Old Men.” Not knowing how to speak in Chinese-accented broken English, Yee describes going to a Chinese restaurant and recording the voice of his waiter. He then launches into a re-creation of his audition, where the casting director kept asking him to make his recently acquired accent ever more over-the-top.
Yee cites this experience as the first step on a cathartic journey. In a city where so many people looked like him, Yee soon learned he was an “ABC” (American-born Chinese) and a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white inside). Yee proves he has grown more facile with accents, launching into a tender portrayal of an aged Chinese tour guide on San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island, the main processing point for Chinese immigrants coming to America from 1910-40. It was the guide who introduced Yee to the desperate poetry carved on the walls by detainees, who spent up to two years in confinement before being processed.
Yee then tenderly re-creates the persona of a man he admits he never really knew: his father, who died when Yee was 11. An engineer in the oil fields of Oklahoma, his father never discussed his immigrant past. With the help of slides, Yee details his efforts to piece together his father’s early life, including his internment in Boston in 1938 at age 15, his acquisition of engineering and geology degrees, his somewhat comical courtship of Yee’s mother and his bitter disappointment when the Communists took over China in 1949, preventing him from ever returning to his homeland.
The most riveting seg of Yee’s show is his description of his efforts to obtain his father’s immigration file from the U.S. National Archives. When he tells his mother he needs a copy of his dad’s death certificate to get the file, she admonishes, “You’re not going to use it in your comedy act, are you?” Yee exudes the awe and wonder of having discovered lost treasure when he exhibits the folder that not only includes a photo of his dad at 15 but proves to be the bridge to past generations in China and to a secret emotional wound his monumentally self-effacing father carried to the grave.
Aiding the production are the adroit voiceover characterizations of Carlos Alazraqui (Comedy Central’s “Reno 911”).
Yee has toured “Paper Son” through the U.S., Canada and the U.K. It is a memorable portrayal that has the legs for a successful Off Broadway run and perhaps a move onto the small screen.