Young Jean Lee’s Subversions of Form

 

Gary Wilmes, James Stanley, and Pete Simpson in Straight White Men, a co-production with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, written and directed by Young Jean Lee, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

Gary Wilmes, James Stanley, and Pete Simpson in Straight White Men, a co-production with Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, written and directed by Young Jean Lee, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes.

 

“Nobody understands the torture and the misery. Why is this happening to me? Why has it never been this bad before? I want to kill myself more than ever. The misery and the torture, the torture and the misery. Why is this happening to me? Okay, let me think of a catalog of my miseries.”—The Appeal by Young Jean Lee (Soho Rep, 2004)

 Kyoung: When did you decide to write STRAIGHT WHITE MEN?

Young Jean: Oh God, I don’t even remember, it was a few years ago when it popped in my head. I asked myself: what’s something I’d be really uncomfortable doing? That’s how I got the idea of a straight, white, male identity-politics show.

Kyoung: While working on STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, is there something new that you’ve learned about straight, white, male identity?

Young Jean: Well, in some ways, I had to learn everything. There were lots of levels on which I couldn’t identify—I don’t have brothers, I’ve never been a tomboy—so I had to learn it all from scratch.

Kyoung: How did you go about this in your development process? Did you do research?

Young Jean: Mostly interviews, actually. I did a lot of interviews with straight, white guys about their lives and gathered first-hand stories. With the actors, I asked a ton of questions and then, I had them improv things for me to hash things out in rehearsals.

I’d never worked a ton with improvisation before, but the first script that we worked on at Brown University was built very heavily around improv, because I didn’t know how guys talked to each other when women weren’t around, I wasn’t used to writing naturalistic dialogue, and I wanted to see how they interacted physically—it was very, very detailed.

Kyoung: Did you have characters in mind when you were working with them?

Young Jean: I did. I knew that I wanted a father and three sons.

Kyoung: That’s interesting. We met when I was interning in your company before the premiere of LEAR at Soho Rep, and I see that the characters in this play echo the family structure of Lear and his three daughters.

Young Jean: That never even occurred to me, but yeah.

Kyoung: There’s something about the characters and the setting of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN that is very recognizable—a family gathering for the Christmas holidays. There’s a lot that is relatable but there is one character in particular, Matt, who is definitely struggling, or is seen as struggling in his life, and everyone is trying to understand what this is.

It’s a very emotional crisis—not a plot-driven crisis—and it makes me wonder: if you’re telling this story of straight white men, why did you make it about a family and talk about father-son relationships? Is there a deeper meaning that you are exploring with this?

Young Jean: I think that the three-act naturalistic, family drama is sort of the “straight white man” of theatrical genres, so I wanted to explore what that genre could do. I ended up kind of straining against its limitations—there’s something about the way the form works that wants to make everything about individual psychology, and I was trying to fight against that idea.

Kyoung: Did you ever talk about issues of patriarchy in this family, or in society, or as a concept?

Young Jean: Yeah, we talk about that constantly, we talk about it every day.

 “Terrence: What if the whole world is a structure that is built up around white people and men controlling everything and being superior. What if everything, including the way we breathe, is structured by this?

Sheila: There’s no such thing as a master structure. It’s all just individuals working towards their goals.”

—Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals by Young Jean Lee (Ontological-Hysteric Theater, 2003)

Kyoung: In STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, your characters play a makeshift board game called PRIVILEGE. In your imagination, how does one win the privilege game?

Young Jean: The PRIVILEGE game? That specific board game, or the privilege game in a more metaphorical sense?

Kyoung: I was going for the game because I think it’s a really funny and I want to know more about it, but I guess it could be both.

Young Jean: I think that denial and excuses are the enemies of the privilege game and the way to win it is by acknowledging your privilege. But the play tries to problematize that as being any kind of final or adequate solution.

“In the event that you actually manage to convince a cracka that white privilege exists, they be like: ‘But what can I do? How can I get sick enough to make another person well?’ Well I ain’t advocating for any great political movement. And nobody expect you to be feel guilty about slavery—you didn’t do that shit! JUST ACKNOWLEDGE THE SYSTEMATIC RACISM THAT IS EMBEDDED IN OUR COUNTRY AND TRY TO MAKE THINGS BETTER BY NOT ASKING ME TO PROVE THAT WHAT I EXPERIENCE IS REALLY RACISM OR REFERRING TO THE FACT THAT I’M BLACK OR MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT MY BACKGROUND OR THE KIND OF MUSIC I LISTEN TO OR WHO I DATE, AND WHEN I CALL YOU OUT ON YOUR BULLSHIT JUST FUCKING SAY I’M SORRY AND TRY NOT TO DO IT AGAIN!” –The Shipment by Young Jean Lee (The Kitchen, 2009)

Kyoung: The PRIVILEGE game in STRAIGHT WHITE MEN was made from a “Monopoly” game. Connecting this game to your explorations of straight, white male identity politics, do your thoughts on patriarchy and privilege have anything to do with the economic systems we live in?

Young Jean: Oh yeah, that’s the main thing it has to do with, for me. STRAIGHT WHITE MEN’s totally about the economic stuff—class, money, our investment in a certain idea of success that’s very much based on a capitalistic model, and how all that gets aligned with race, gender, etc.

Kyoung: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio and has toured to The Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz and the Festival d”Automne a Paris at the Pompidou Center in Paris. How have audiences responded to this piece?

 Young Jean: Well, the response to every version we did before New York made me really unhappy. The show was either a total crowd-pleaser where the audience ignored all the ideas in it, or it was so heavy-handed that the audience tuned out. At the Public we finally struck the right balance between keeping people engaged and making them uncomfortable.

“We shut out people’s pain when we are not in pain ourselves. We wear an armor that is false, that is constructed of nothing and when the lies shatter we will face it. And we will survive by continuing on, by forgetting, by shutting out, but we will not forget. We will not have not forgotten anything. Everything that happened will be contained somewhere inside us, feeding on us, waiting for the day in which it can regain its rightful power.”—Lear by Young Jean Lee (Soho Rep, 2010)

 

Kyoung: I’ve read two versions of the play and something that has become clearer to me is that the play’s dramaturgical form creates a mirror for the straight white male identity that you’re exploring as its subject matter, and I think that it’s very interesting that you’re writing about a family in which there’s clearly a male presence and a lack of female presence. And because it’s a Christmas gathering, there’s also connotations that they’re Christian males, or white males of a Christian background, and this is, at least in America, and in many ways, Western Europe, a reflection of a very dominant culture—

Young Jean: Yes, definitely.

Kyoung: So I guess my question is a little more pointed towards the fact that you are holding this mirror to such a dominant cultural perspective. Can you talk a little bit more about the engagement you’re having with audiences? Is there a response you’re looking for, or is there something you’ve been surprised to hear?

Young Jean: The response I’m always hoping for is, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it”. I like it when people leave the show disturbed.

Almost everyone, whether they liked it or not, is saying that they leave the play feeling awful. This is my favorite comment about the show so far: “So you created a show with characters I can’t help “liking” but whose lives I find myself immediately “disliking” for reasons that have nothing to do with them as individuals. And then I end up being able to acknowledge/empathize with the pain and disillusionment of Matt while also feeling no pity or sympathy because he “conceptually” has all the things I assume he needs to “succeed” and just isn’t applying himself. Grrrl. My heads is still spinning ever so gently. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“I keep referring to God as a ‘he’ because this is a patriarchal, sexist culture and many people find it more comforting to think of God as a father—but you can call God whatever you want. We are a culture obsessed with willpower. We believe that with enough determination and positive thinking, we can control our future. But as anyone who has ever lived through real tragedy knows, our world is cruel and senseless one, and without God we are completely at its mercy.”—Church by Young Jean Lee (PS 122, 2007)

Kyoung: You’ve written about Asian-American identity politics in SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN, African-American identity politics in THE SHIPMENT, and even gender politics with UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW—but every time you write about identity politics, you’ve also experimented with form.

Starting with LEAR, you also spoke a lot about your interest in exploring the tragic form. LEAR became your adaptation of a Shakesperean tragedy; WE’RE GONNA’ DIE was a cabaret act which Mac Wellman might call a choral tragedy, and the UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is a dance performance piece that resembled a Bacchic dithyramb. Is STRAIGHT WHITE MEN a continuation of your exploration of the tragic form?

Young Jean: Yeah, I guess that’s fair to say. WE’RE GONNA DIE dealt with tragedy, PULLMAN, WA dealt with depression, and CHURCH, in a lot of ways, was about unhappiness. I feel that different sources of unhappiness are something of interest to me.

Kyoung: I was looking at PULLMAN,WA last night and I don’t know whether it’s Korean—Sayleh-kah-malikka… Hikk-en yaa, chunken yaa”—because this sounds like gibberish—

Young Jean: [laughs.]

Kyoung: But if it is Korean, it means: “Should I live or should I die? Should I stay or should I go?” In the context of your body of work, do you feel that you’re confronting your own sense of mortality by writing plays?

Young Jean: No, I don’t think I’m obsessed with mortality. I think I’m interested in mortality only insofar as it’s a source of pain and anxiety. I’m obsessed with pain, anxiety, unfairness, people who suffer more than other people, and I think that my writing about identity-politics reflects that—it’s about suffering, which I think is the main thing that interests me about identity politics.

“Tom: This is how to live.
Tory: Be born different.”

Pullman, WA by Young Jean Lee (PS122, 2005)

Kyoung: In STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, you quote Nietzsche’s BIRTH OF TRAGEDY and the myth of Silenus—that the secret to happiness is to not be born at all, not to be, to be nothing. Or if born, to die soon.

Young Jean: Right—

Kyoung: This reminds me of that line in LEAR—“nothing can protect you from nothing”—or just the title: WE’RE GONNA’ DIE.

Young Jean: I love these connections you’re making between the plays. I think they’re very accurate, they ring true to me, but it’s not something that I usually think about.

“Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are to be immune to tragedy? What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?”—We’re Gonna’ Die by Young Jean Lee (The Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub, 2011)

Young Jean: But when I think about it, I’m like: “oh yeah, these are all the things I’m obsessed with.” I’m obsessed with the question of how do you live? What’s the right way to live? How do you deal with pain?

 Kyoung: Which again, goes back to the idea of tragedy and how we can define it.

Young Jean: Exactly.

Kyoung: As a playwright, that’s a very uncomfortable position to be in and I sense that you’re wrestling with something that must also be emotionally taxing—to put yourself in the rehearsal room with these characters and re-write the play to be truthful, not only to the story and the identity politics you’re exploring, but being truthful to the emotions related to tragedy.

 

“When something bad happens I find myself completely alone. And the white people go on laughing and talking as usual while I’m suddenly in the middle of a nightmare. It’s like when you’re walking through a park on a sunny day, feeling suicidal, and you see people lying on the grass or throwing Frisbees, and the images burn themselves into your eyes.”—Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals by Young Jean Lee (Ontological-Hysteric Theater, 2003)

Kyoung: I couldn’t mark when you decided to write this play, but you said it’s been a few years now. Can you talk about how this has affected your own personal relationship to privilege, whether it’s yours or other people’s privilege, and your relationship to straight white men? How has this process changed you?

Young Jean: It’s really put me in a bind, because before this show, I just told myself that by being an Asian, female playwright, who is making work, that I was improving my community by contributing to its diversity, and that that was enough

Now, I’m realizing the extent to which my pursuit of my own ambitions as an artist is aligned with the patriarchy and that in order for any systemic change to happen, where it’s not just: “minorities on top, straight white men on the bottom,” you can’t keep pursuing the same model. It requires more than that, and it has made me question how committed I actually am to social change.

 

“I love the white patriarchy with all my heart because I’m ambitious and want power. My whole mentality is identical in structure to that of a sexist, racist, homosexual white male. People think of me as this empowered Asian female, but really, I’m just a fucking white guy.”—Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven by Young Jean Lee (HERE Arts Center, 2006)

Young Jean: I think that when you’re not a straight, white male, it’s easy to just say: “oh, I’m not that,” so I don’t have to worry about anything because I just have to survive. I don’t actually believe that anymore.

Kyoung: I think that the form you’ve adopted is very familiar to many people, the same way that minstrelsy as a form for THE SHIPMENT was familiar to an audience. But to a certain extent, there is a degree of subversion that is happening in STRAIGHT WHITE MEN and I’m wondering, are people aware of this subversion?

Young Jean: Yes I think so. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback to that effect.

People are saying they’ve never seen an all-male group onstage being politically correct, sensitive, and coming from a place of loving each other. They’ve never heard straight, white guys talk about what these men are talking about on-stage.

Also, the Western vision of the family drama is based on the assumption that everything can be reduced to individual psychology. In STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, the problem in the play is not focused on human psychology. It’s about being stuck in a dilemma without easy solutions.

 

“Yesterday I saw good and evil and the good have this thing, this thing that I could look at and grasp in my hand and say ‘this is good’ even though the world is confusing there is this one thing that is obviously outrightly good. And that thing is friendship between males.”—Yagoo (Little Theater at Tonic, 2003)

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Kyoung H. Park is the first Korean playwright from Latin America to be produced and published in the United States. He is author of Sex and Hunger, disOriented, Walkabout Yeolha, and many short plays including Mina, which is published in Seven Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora in the Americas by Duke University Press. He is Artistic Director of Kyoung’s Pacific Beat, a peacemaking theater company, and Performance Project @ University Settlement will present the World Premiere of his newest play TALA January 2015.

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