Back Talk: Young Jean Lee

Back Talk: Young Jean Lee

A conversation with the author of The Shipment about American theater, irony and Mariah Carey.


Young Jean Lee is an Obie Award-winning experimental playwright and director whose most recent play, The Shipment, recently closed a three-week run at The Kitchen. The Shipment is structured in three parts and was performed by a cast of five black actors. In the first part, a comedian delivers an abrasive, obscenity-laden stand-up routine. In the second, a "minstrel show," the actors sing and dance in a stereotypical story of an inner-city kid who becomes a rapper. In the third part, the actors perform a dinner party scene where, in a final twist, their characters are revealed to be white. Lee’s next play, King Lear, seems unlikely to bear much resemblance to Shakespeare’s original. —Christine Smallwood

I’ve heard that you generate a lot of material and then throw most of it away.

I studied Shakespeare for ten years, then dropped out of grad school and came to New York. I learned to make theater by watching young companies descended from Richard Foreman and from the Wooster Group–collaborative ensembles where everybody writes, everybody acts, everybody directs. In the collaborative groups a lot of the time it’s democratic, but I definitely wanted to be the boss. I started this process, which is I cast the show before I write it. I don’t know what gender the characters are going to be a lot of the time; I don’t know how many there will be. It’s just based on who comes into the room, who triggers that desire to write for them. People will say, I wish you would do this for my character; I wish this would happen–and then I go home and write more and bring it in. I’ll take feedback from anybody. Between somebody else’s good idea and my good idea, if theirs is better I have no issue with whose good idea it was. I just want the best idea.

How did you find the right tone for The Shipment?

We worked on it for a year, then we did these two workshop performances and both of them were horrible nightmares. Black people were offended and walked out, and white people were laughing, enjoying themselves and really dismissive afterward. The actors came out, at the end, doing all this confrontational stuff to the audience. We played an R. Kelly song, and they started doing every black-performer stereotype you can think of, very, very ironically. And then they tried to pull audience members onto the stage to dance with them. We didn’t expect that anybody would actually go onto the stage–who is going to do that when they’re doing all these stereotypes? But it completely went over the audience’s head; they didn’t get that it was ironic, and [white people] joyfully jumped onto the stage and started dancing like black people. The actors were really freaked out. I ended up throwing out everything that I’d worked on for a year, recasting the show and starting over from scratch.

Your plays feature music very prominently.

I’ll hear a song, and a scene will just pop into my head. Like in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, I heard Mariah Carey’s "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and the image popped into my head of all of these women in traditional Korean dresses miming gruesome suicides and then scuttling around the stage like crabs. It doesn’t really make any sense when you hear it, but when you see it onstage that song goes perfectly with the image.

What is your sense of the state of American theater?

This is a little bit controversial, but I would say it’s our most backward art form. I don’t know what happened to theater. It’s so expensive now–tickets are $50 to $100, so most of the audience members are over 50 and middle class and white. Because there’s so little money in it and it’s just gotten less and less popular every year, the really talented writers are going to Hollywood. Theater just can’t keep them, so the quality of writing is lower. There’s been this response where a lot of the plays out in the mainstream are just pretentious TV shows, bad TV shows. If you go to the theater, people will laugh at jokes they would never laugh at if they saw them on TV. It’s really embarrassing. When European presenters come to New York, they don’t go to see anything that’s on Broadway or Off Broadway. It’s like going to Disney World: the art-world equivalent of Norman Rockwell. Actually, pretentious Norman Rockwell, because every once in a while something flashy happens and then it’s like, Ooh!

You have a deal to write a movie for Paramount. What does all this mean for you as a writer?

I worked for two years on The Shipment, and a few thousand people saw it. I don’t want to stop doing theater–there is definitely something in the live-performance experience that could never be replaced by film. I was talking to Tim Etchells, from a company called Forced Entertainment in England, who’s been doing this since the ’80s. I asked him, "How do you become you?" He said, "You just survive. You keep making shows no matter what happens." Everybody of the older generation still making experimental theater today, they are such rock stars because they’ve weathered so many ups and downs. I’m almost 35, and all my life I’ve never cared about money at all. I made almost nothing–people can’t believe what I live on–and I’ve never cared. And now I’m almost 35, and suddenly, for the first time, I don’t want to be poor. That’s how you lose people.

To what extent is your work ironic?

The thing that makes it not ironic, because it comes so close, is that there’s never any contempt for anybody. It exposes human idiocy, but it’s from the perspective of "I’m the idiot." Irony is when the creator and actors feel superior to what they’re representing. Whereas in my case what the actors are embodying may seem ridiculous, but I write from my stupid place, so it’s genuinely me being that stupid. There’s this ring of truth because I actually am that stupid on some level.

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