When the call came from Rideau Hall to tell David Yee that he had won the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Drama, it went to voicemail.
Yee, who graduated from U of T Mississauga’s theatre and drama studies program in 2000, retrieved the message, but wasn’t sure if the news would be good or bad. His play, carried away on the crest of a wave, had already made the award’s shortlist, and Yee knew he would be notified, win or lose.
“I had to go out on the balcony to have a cigarette and call,” Yee says.
As he absorbed the good news, he realized that there was bad news, too: he couldn’t tell anyone until the formal announcement was made a week later. The time he had to absorb the news allowed Yee to respond with equanimity to all the congratulations he received.
“I’m grateful,” says Yee, who was previously nominated in 2010 for his play, lady in a red dress. “In truth, the shortlist was amazing. I knew a lot of the plays and they are exceptional. I was just happy to be counted among them.”
It’s not as if Yee has had much time to dwell on the award. As artistic director of fu-GEN, a Toronto-based Asian Canadian theatre company, he is busy planning the next season while simultaneously rehearsing the upcoming production. Add to that his work as dramaturg for Banana Boys, which opens Nov. 6 at Toronto’s Factory Theatre and his tenure as playwright-in-residence there, and there’s enough work to go around for three of him.
“I’m five days behind in checking my email,” Yee admits.
Yee entered UTM intending to pursue acting; he graduated focused on writing plays.
“I started writing because I wasn’t getting any roles with substance,” says Yee, who is of mixed Chinese-Scottish ancestry. “All the good parts were very white and Eurocentric. Everyone else in the class could hope to play the major classical parts, but I could not. I wanted to create something for myself.”
His award-winning play, carried away on the crest of a wave was written in response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand after a magnitude 9.1 earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean. More than 230,000 people died, including many vacationers from countries around the world. The play portrays some of the complexities inherent in the tsunami’s impact on people’s lives worldwide.
“I had a number of loved ones in Southeast Asia at the time,” Yee says. “The tsunami struck so many coasts and I didn’t know where they were.
“It was a galvanizing event in the Asian Canadian community. It affected all the communities and everyone was fundraising. Help came from everywhere and the overwhelming kindness and compassion were awe-inspiring.”
The play had its debut in 2013 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre and had its American premiere later that year in Fairfax, Virginia. Since most theatres program their plays three years in advance, drama fans will have to read the play before they have an opportunity to see it performed.
Yee has another play in the works and plans to use some of his $25,000 in prize money to travel to Hong Kong, the setting for part of the play, which will eventually be staged at the Factory Theatre. Meanwhile, any travel yearnings will have to be satisfied by his Dec. 2 trip to Ottawa for the Governor General’s Award presentation.
“I’m not one for pomp and circumstance,” he says, “but I’m sure it will be delightful.”