Just a few years later, the play became one of the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 Governor General’s Awards for Literary Merit. Clearly, there are people in Canada who admire his literary potential and dramatic acumen. When asked about the development of the work, he says, “lady…was this epic bit of storytelling that I didn’t know I even had in me; it actually took me by surprise because it was a sweeping, full-length play and I’d never really written one of those before. The research was arduous because—and no one told me this—when you’re writing a play based on historical events, but it’s still a fiction, you really need to know the legitimate history of it all before you can start making it up.” Not surprisingly, Yee spend a lot of time digging through the archives of local and national newspapers, like the Toronto Star. He went as far back as 1885 to find information on Chinese immigration and the subsequent Head Tax paid by many immigrants arriving at the beginning of the 20th century. He also talked to people in the community who had ancestors or personal connections to the particular issues under investigation.
What happens when the past you’re writing about is being revisited in the present? Yee knows this answer and reflects on the evolution of his post-immigrant play. “Part-way through writing lady in the red dress, the actual redress happened. That was also a first because I’d never been in the middle of writing something that—in reality—shifts so drastically mid-process. So there was a major shift in the writing from a play about we must get redress to a play about what’s the difference between redress and justice?” As it turns out, he admits, the play turned out to be more complex and interesting than anticipated; the direction of the play took new turns with the final version of the play becoming an abstraction of these real life events. Even among some naysayers, Yee kept his nose to the grindstone and his head up. “The critical reception was not overwhelmingly positive. But I was happy with the production. Nina did an outstanding job (directing) and we had some amazing actors. The poor critical reception really made the Governor General ‘GG’ nomination that much more surprising and gratifying.”
Now, with a string of acting and writing credits and a major GG nomination under his belt, it seems as if Yee is ready to stake a claim on the future of Asian Canadian theatre. But before charging forward, he takes time to acknowledge the work of his colleagues and predecessors: people like fellow fu-GEN founding members Leon Aureus, playwright of Banana Boys (based on Terry Woo’s novel), Nina Lee Aquino, and Richard Lee, not to mention Asian Canadian theatre pioneer Jean Yoon. He humbly credits these people with fu-GEN’s success to date. With that said, Yee is also aware of the potential and possible new directions that he could take the company. When asked to articulate his vision for fu-GEN, he’s pretty quick to answer: “I want to have thriving, producing partnerships with companies all across Canada and tours exported out of Canada. I would like to see fu-GEN as a representative of the Asian Canadian landscape and theatre ecology.” After this thought he pauses, and then adds more. “I want to keep an eye on who’s creating new work in the Asian Canadian community: to be giving emerging directors and actors something to work with, and connecting emerging playwrights to people who can take on their work in exciting ways.”
As I’m speaking with David Yee, I can’t help but feel as if I’m talking to an old friend with similar interests. We share quite a few laughs and opinions while he continues to slurp on noodles on the other end of the phone line; apparently, he is so famished he can’t wait until after our conversation to eat lunch. I don’t mind at all, because he’s so unassuming. But in one last chance to get some closing thoughts, I threaten to end our interview if he starts eating durian—he promises me he won’t.
I wonder how Yee will balance all of his duties as artistic director, and how he will satisfy his creative desires to boot. He says, “Canadian theatre, like rap music, is all about the hustle. We do what we got to do to keep going and working in the industry we love. Right now I’m an artistic director (fu-GEN), a playwright-in-residence (Tarragon Theatre) and an occasional actor when time and opportunity allows. Neither thing on its own is a practical vocation.”
Working with the talented fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company and many affiliate artists, Yee continues to carve out a space for the fresh voices of today and the upcoming voices of tomorrow. With his parting thought there’s a decided sense of esteem and pride: “I think the most exciting and theatrically engaging voices are coming out of the diverse communities. We’ve always tried to enable the artists we come across to express their artistic voice as loudly, boldly and as often as possible. I’d really just like the established and non-diversely-mandated theatres to take note of that and catch up to us.”