Conversation: Young Jean Lee
Described by the New York Times as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation,” Young Jean Lee is a theater maker with range. Her works Straight White Men and Untitled Feminist Show both explore gender and identity but in very different ways.
Holly Hughes (U-M professor, School of Art & Design and Department of Theatre and Drama) and Tina Satter (U-M Playwright-in-Residence) chat about what’s exciting, provocative, and interesting about these performances.
Transcription of conversation
Holly Hughes: I think it’s really exciting that UMS is bringing in Young Jean Lee because we’re not in a major metropolitan area where there’s a lot of contemporary new theater happening. And she’s definitely one of the more exciting and prolific voices that’s making avant-garde theater today, she’s a woman, she’s a person of color, and she’s working within an experimental but accessible domain, and there’s nudity. So it’s January and I feel like that’s going to heat things up a little bit; I’m excited about that.
Tina Satter: It’s so incredible to see that a play or performance is naked women on stage grappling with deep ideas. That a play called Straight White Men written in the traditional way of a well made aristotelian play is actually slowly cutting away at what that means and asking deeply contemporary questions of straight white male identity.
HH: You definitely should see both because it does speak to one of her gifts which is her range. And if you see one and you think that’s who she is, the other one just seems very different.
TS: You haven’t seen Straight White Men, right?
HH: I’ve seen so many straight white men; that’s all I see is straight white men!
TS: In a way like Destroy the Audience, the title alone in 2014, to call a show Straight White Men, that’s provocative just right there to call it that; it’s already doing so much work. Sometimes it’s like, “how dare she?” We don’t need any more straight white men, but we know she’s definitely going to be playing with that.
HH: Calling something Straight White Men after a whole engagement around identity politics makes us aware in a way that sometimes falls out of the conversation that heterosexuality, whiteness, maleness, those are all performances too; They’re all identities and they’re not just, “the culture”. It’s so rare for women to be allowed to be provocateurs, to really throw people into this level of discomfort and uncertainty. There’s a long tradition of men in culture, white men in culture being provocative and if they’re in fact not really provocative but just offensive, they can always hide behind that role. But with women it’s rare.
TS: I can’t remove the idea of Young Jean Lee’s emotional connection to the project. That’s something that’s always in my head when I leave her work.
HH: Can you say more about that?
TS: Maybe it starts because I’ve literally been on Facebook and I read her emotional connection to it from potentially a couple of years before. And it’s sometimes in a discomforting way, like she’s in there almost in my brain wanting to trigger something in me, in a way I don’t feel in many plays. Even plays that are made from a writer/director and they apparently have a more “hand of the maker” in them; That’s something I have when I leave those shows. What is a straight white man supposed to do with himself? Which actually is a question of the play and then, what is everyone that is not a straight white man also supposed so do with straight white men? Those are huge questions and I think it’s not like she’s even attempting to answer that, but those are underneath that, I think in that play. What does it mean in this contemporary moment to be a straight white man? And I think she’s pulling back to consider that in this antithetically subversive way by putting them in the most natural environment of a well made play about straight white men. I think it becomes a bit of a theatrical laboratory for considering.
HH: I think in Untitled Feminist Show you’re thinking about, or she’s wanting you to think about, when you talk about the performance of gender we’re talking about a kind of choreography of moving through and how your gender presentation informs the way you occupy space and how you do different daily tasks, banal tasks or not banal tasks but a range of tasks; How do you use your body? So if it’s a performance and there’s a kind of choreography for it, and by having different bodies on stage who have a different relationship to biology and different relationships to how they see their gender, she’s really thinking about it as a performance; It’s not an idea. It’s not some theory that somebody dreamt up; it’s a reality. To say gender’s a performance is a statement of fact. You’re really made aware of that. In a different way, using a different forum she’s also thinking about these identities we just thought of like, white people don’t have race, men don’t have gender and now we know that’s not true. I think she’s asking us to think and to feel about that and to not come to a conclusion. That’s different than writing a scholarly paper where you have to have some conclusion, even if it’s an open ended one you’ve got to wind it down.
TS: Yeah, I think the word you just used “to feel, to think and to feel” I think that ties into that thing I was trying to explain about Young Jean’s emotional questions that I somehow can feel present in me afterwards. I think getting to feel this thing unfold in front of you is a huge part of it. As clear as the topics are, from the titles to what you see, it’s not to stir up didactic answers; It is to stay with these questions and feel how confusing, and amazing, and scary it is to be next to these questions in a way that frankly only live performance can make happen to elicit a certain feeling.
Interview: Theater maker Young Jean Lee
Moments in Untitled Feminist show (left) and Straight White Men (right). Photos by Julieta Cervantes and Brian Mediana.
“Young Jean Lee is, hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.” (New York Times) This January, UMS showcases Young Jean Lee’s two most recent theater works on gender and identity. The plays are performed across the street from each other in the Power Center and Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.
UMS Lobby regular contributor Leslie Stainton interviewed Young Jean Lee ahead of the visit.
Leslie Stainton: How do you define “theater”?
Young Jean Lee: I don’t have a definition for it. If someone calls it “theater,” then to me it’s theater.
To my knowledge, this will be the first time anyone’s deliberately paired Untitled Feminist Show with Straight White Men. What do you hope happens from that juxtaposition? What are you most curious about?
The shows are so different and appeal to such different audiences, but for me they’re both coming from a similar place. My hope is that seeing them back to back will encourage audiences to look for their similarities.
How do you go about choosing a language—verbal, nonverbal—for a specific work about a particular topic?
I’m always trying to find the best match between form and content. For the first workshop of Untitled Feminist Show in 2010 I wrote a script and after the showing, our audience did nothing but make academic arguments about feminism. I wanted to hit people on a more emotional, visceral level, so as we did more workshops, I kept cutting out more and more of the text until there was nothing left but movement, and the audience was forced to react emotionally. I tried hard to write words that could compete with the movement and dance, but I couldn’t. We found that movement communicated what we wanted much more strongly than words did
For Straight White Men, I saw the traditional three-act structure as the “straight white male” of theatrical forms, or the form that has historically been used to present straight white male narratives as universal. And I thought it would be interesting to explore the boundaries of that form at the same time as its content.
What role do you see for live performance in our technological age? In what ways, if any, must live performance evolve and/or adapt in a world of rapid technological change?
Theater has been around forever—it’s survived the advent of radio and television and film. It’s become part of our educational system. I don’t really see it going anywhere.
What issues are you yearning to tackle in your work (or not, given your penchant for writing about “the last thing” you’d want to write about!)?
The Native American genocide has been on my mind a lot lately.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to figure out how to make my first feature film!
When did you first fall for live performance?
There was a summer stock theater in the town where I grew up, and my parents took me to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum when I was very young, and I was hooked.
Many of your pieces deal with identity. In what ways is theater especially well suited for addressing questions of identity?
I don’t know that it is. Identity is hard to address in any art form, I think.
What key trends do you see in American theater today?
I think that contemporary American theater is very aesthetically conservative, and that it charges way too much for tickets. It isn’t adventurous or challenging enough — I’m thinking of mainstream commercial theater where everything has a linear plot line and there’s very little formal experimentation. I think the New York experimental theater/performance scene is still exciting. The stronger artists tend to have longer developmental processes. The performers have a lot of charisma and intelligence. There’s a lot of collaboration. On the other hand, I think a danger with experimental theater is when it gets locked into its own kind of tradition and you just see a bunch of experimental-theater cliches being played out.