THE LESSONS OF YOUNG JEAN LEE:
-- KITTSON O’NEILL -- InterAct Artistic Associate & Dramaturg for STRAIGHT WHITE MEN
I was one of the lucky few who saw Young Jean Lee’s first breakout hit, Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven in 2006 at HERE Arts. It was the show everybody was talking about and afterwards I was too - because I hated it.
As a result, I resisted Lee and her work, but a few years ago I bowed to the unending praise of my peers and read Lear, her provocative reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It was magical and truly eye opening. Here was an artist masterfully playing with the structures of our culture, of race and gender, and the structures of the theater – discovering a painfully, human story about loneliness and the crushing obligations of family in the process.
I reread Songs. It is, in fact, a very clever inversion of Asian stereotypes and an incisive indictment of our culture’s tendency to dehumanize the other. I needed my mind wide open if I wanted to understand this artist. And I wanted to.
She has since changed the way I think about my work and my place in the theater -- and I’m not the only one. Recently, I reached out to some of InterAct’s family of artists to ask them about their relationship to Lee and her work and they had some wonderful insights to add.
James Ijames, Actor and InterAct Core Playwright:
I taught The Shipment in a class called Race on the Stage at Temple for two semesters and each time it left the students both frustrated and exhilarated. That play was an eye opener to how race (and by extension conversations about race) can be made manifest on a stage in real time with people sharing a space and unable to escape without violating their own sense of not being prejudice. It is remarkable how Young Jean Lee makes us all conspirators in her work. She is a MAJOR influence on how I present race and bodies of color in my own plays.
Eric Pfeffinger, author of Some Other Kind of Person, an InterAct commission:
It's as though she's a completely different person writing each new play. This requires not only a broad and inventive mind but also an artistic fearlessness, because she resists the seductive temptation of saying "Well, something like this worked last time, so maybe I'll just do something like that again." I envy and can only hope to try to emulate this willingness to dive into a new work undefended by the tics and reflexive habits and stylistic tendencies that writers tend to accrete like protective barnacles. Each time I encounter a new Young Jean Lee play it makes me think: "Huh -- I didn't know that was something we could do."
MJ Kaufman, InterAct Core Playwright:
Young Jean Lee changed the way I think about being a playwright. When I saw her Untitled Feminist Show something clicked. Being a playwright isn't just about writing words on a page, it's about being an author of a theatrical event. Convening a community to embrace the hardest questions around us and finding the right, unique form for each question. Maybe you need a dance to tackle feminism. Maybe you need a rock concert to tackle death. Playwriting is asking your world to see and hear and think differently. I met her soon after that. She said she figures out what her next piece is by thinking of what scares her the most.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN runs May 27 - June 19
For more on YOUNG JEAN LEE (including a video of Lou Reed talking about her!) Go to her company website: http://www.youngjeanlee.org/