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Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee has the world’s most privileged social class firmly in her sights. By Steve Dow.

Playwright Young Jean Lee on Straight White Men

Young Jean Lee
Credit: BLAINE DAVIS

It is November 2014, and an older, whiter, more affluent crowd than the multicultural audience that usually attends this avant-garde playwright’s work is seeing the New York debut of Straight White Men. Having presented 10 shows in this city through her eponymous theatre company, the play is Young Jean Lee’s first crack at a naturalist, three-act structure and, the subscribers might presume, a first waltz with the mainstream.

The set at the Public Theatre is comfortably reassuring: a hyper-naturalistic middle-class family room with a taupe leather sofa, a matching easy chair, a dark-brown recliner with matching ottoman, a side table, and a large battered coffee table. The focal point is an unseen television downstage centre. But this domestic vision has sprung from the mind of Young Jean Lee: the Korean-born writer, now 41, who sticks to her motto of Destroy the Audience, though not before she’s made herself viscerally uncomfortable.

Before this story of three brothers and their father getting together for Christmas is allowed to unfold, in which they will discuss their privilege in being straight and white and male, the opening music is loud hip-hop with sexually explicit lyrics by female rappers, played fortissimo; so loud that people have to shout over it to be heard.

“Ride dick like a pro, throw the pussy like I’m famous,” goes one line, though this is the night’s biggest improvisation: the script does not prescribe which particular sexually explicit female rap song a theatre should play. A New York magazine critic declared of this night’s pre-show music: “Consider me disoriented”, before summing up why this play’s ideas were gripping.

The New York Public Theatre subscriber base was enraged, however, according to Lee. Some cancelled their subscriptions, seeing the music as “an act of violence and hostility towards them”. The “huge scandal” says something about privilege, says Lee, “coming into a space and thinking, ‘This needs to be made for my comfort.’ ”

In a New Yorker profile published that month, Hilton Als wrote that Lee is a “troubling, necessary presence” for critics and audiences, having built drama around “racially driven self-hatred, the naked body, and patriarchy…” Critical plaudits ensured enough interest to extend the play’s season at the Lafayette Street venue, more than accounting for the loss of those conservative subscribers.

“Lee is one of the most important theatre makers working today,” concurred Jane Howard in the journal Kill Your Darlings last September on the news that Straight White Men is to be staged in separate productions this year by Melbourne Theatre Company (from May 6 to June 18), and jointly by the State Theatre Company of South Australia and La Boite Theatre Company, first in Adelaide in July and then Brisbane from July 27 to August 13. Lee is “one of the few women of her generation who is consistently creating work that tours to international festivals”, says Howard.

Lee’s existential cabaret We’re Gonna Die played the Melbourne Festival in 2012, in which Lee recounted pain in her life: the losses of family members, playground politics, being isolated. She then danced with her erstwhile band, Future Wife, imploring the crowd to clap and sing a refrain, “We’re gonna die.” In 2010, her work The Shipment was one of the pivotal productions of Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed’s Vivid LIVE festival at the Sydney Opera House, playing with African-American stereotypes, citing minstrel shows through to crack dealers.

She has long played with stereotypes about Asian-Americans, too. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven opens with footage of Lee being struck repeatedly in the face and a monologue asking, “Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents?” In 2006, The New York Times declared the work “hysterically funny”.

Jane Howard calls Lee a “radical and varied theatre maker, who creates work that discomfits audiences, surprises her fans, and is filled with a love of performance and a deep intellectual rigour”. Howard is delighted to see Lee’s work gain traction in Australia. But she questions why the first Lee work to be programmed here for an extended season centres on a topic with which we’re well familiar: straight white men. The play’s “critique of traditional power structures and liberal men who believe they are doing good” has been programmed within seasons of local theatre companies that otherwise “fully embody exactly what Lee explores”.

In response to Howard’s valuable critique, it might be anticipated that audiences drawn in by familiar, comforting white faces on posters for the play in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane are likely to be set straight, so to speak, with not only the sudden initiation to sexually explicit female rap music but also a transgender or gender non-conforming stage hand-in-charge, who wields an air of authority. Young Jean Lee’s explorations of gender and race firmly continue.

What made Lee decide to impose the restrictions of the three-act structure? “Part of the way I make work is to ask myself, ‘What is the last thing in the world I would want to do?’ ” Lee says in a Skype interview from New York. “and then I force myself to do that thing. Every project ends up being wildly different in form and content from whatever came before. I just felt the three-act naturalistic play was the straight white male of theatrical genres … It turns out straight white maleness and that particular form have a lot in common.”

There are four roles. Ed, the father, in his mid-70s, has raised his sons to be socially aware that their whiteness gives them privilege. There is an old Monopoly game board in the family home with a large homemade label on the box that reads “Privilege”, the inside of the box decorated with a black power fist, and handwritten rules and community chest cards. For example: “ ‘What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay $50 to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Centre.”

Matt, the eldest son, north of 40 and once said to have been the smartest of the three brothers, has taken these lessons to heart, underplaying his potential and working in a series of clerical temp jobs as a martyr to the less privileged. The middle son, Jake, and Drew have digested the lessons in very different ways, and try to coach Matt out of his shell, wherein the drama lies.

Actors who have played these roles have said the work is surprisingly compassionate, moving beyond stereotypes. Yet Lee is determined audiences will not be allowed to feel comfortable upon exit, or be supplied with easy answers.

 

An only child who migrated to the United States, in 1976, with her parents at age two, Lee grew up in the small Washington state town of Pullman, and had an “almost totally isolated” childhood. There was much racism at her school and she deflected attention by underachieving academically. “I don’t know that I was doing it consciously, but I didn’t study, I didn’t do activities,” she says. “I didn’t try very hard at anything.”

A handful of other female Asian students would hang out together. “There was something about that that I didn’t like; I didn’t want to be segregated,” she says. “They all seemed well adjusted to me, but who knows?” Lee did “okay, I didn’t do great” at studies, “but when I was a sophomore at high school, I suddenly realised that if I wanted to get out of Washington state, I was going to have to work, so I started studying, halfway through high school”.

Her scores improved but Lee believes it was her essay that got her over the line to be admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in literature. The essay compared being young to having cataracts: “Your sight is obscured. You’re young, and you can’t see things clearly. The older you get, you can see more clearly every year.”

Lee’s father, James Moon Lee, was a chemical engineer, who came to the US to get a degree, while her mother, Inn-Soo Lee, enrolled at Berkeley and gained a master’s degree in photography. Her father died several years ago and her mother lives in Virginia. They wanted their only child to get a stable job, but Lee was able to support herself as an artist, so they became proud of her achievements.

“They were conservative Christians, but the weird thing about them was they were culturally sort of progressives for Koreans. You know, their Christianity was in a way a mark of their progressiveness.

“So they didn’t really hold with super-traditional Korean values. When I was not getting good grades, they were not standing over me, forcing me to do my homework. They were kind of the cool kids in their college; like, it was cool to be a Christian. And they were cool; they talked to me about everything.”

Did Christianity rub off on Lee? “No, and that was a huge source of conflict between me and them. I think I get more spiritual the older I get; not in the sense of organised religion, but much more open to the idea of some sort of higher power. I used to be adamantly atheist, and now I’m much more open to religion in general.”

Was there a catalyst that changed her mind? “Yeah. My father started having night terrors in college, and I think that’s what drove him to Christianity, actually. And then I started getting them, in my 30s. For me, pretty much anything that happens in the daytime I can handle, but things happening at night are terrifying for me: like, dreams, your unconscious state, which you can’t control. That would really freak me out. I started to become a little less arrogant, and more open.”

Lee had become a Shakespeare scholar, and had begun a dissertation on King Lear that would not be completed. Four years into that dissertation, she got married, at age 26. One day, her therapist asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Off the top of her head, Lee said, “playwright”.

In 2000, her husband enrolled at Yale law school, and they moved to New Haven. Lee began looking up the works of playwrights teaching at the Yale school of drama, and then meeting them. In 2002, she enrolled in Mac Wellman’s master of fine arts playwriting program at Brooklyn College, where Wellman challenged her to write a script she didn’t want to write. By 2004, she had staged her first play, The Appeal, about the Romantic poets.

In 2006, having split from her husband, with whom she had been in love, Lee produced Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, featuring four women with Korean backgrounds, which gained her wide attention, with audiences laughing uncomfortably at the cultural self-hatred portrayed.

“My path just deviated so far from my old life, and if I wanted to go down the [playwriting] path, my husband wasn’t thrilled about it. I mean, he’s so supportive now, and he’s apologised, but back then he wasn’t into the idea of me pursuing the arts. So I thought, ‘I gotta do this.’ ”

She didn’t look back at academia. “I just felt it was bullshit. I found it absurd that you’re going to write a whole book that is a thesis about a work of fiction. It’s crazy. You can’t present evidence; there’s no evidence, there’s no answer. It’s ridiculous. People are taking this seriously and arguing with each other over these interpretations.”

Setting up the Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company, based in Brooklyn, there is a common denominator in method: she casts each show before she starts writing her play. There is a long period of research, workshopping and talking to the sorts of people she’s portraying – in this case, straight white men.

Hence we get insightful discussion about things such as the rules of a game called Gay Chicken, described thus by youngest son Drew: “It’s where straight guys dare each other to do shit like, I don’t know, put their balls on each other’s faces, and whoever chickens out first, loses.”

Believe it or not, Lee discovered she has something in common with straight white men. Sure, straight white men don’t share the emotional intimacy she’s used to, but: “As an Asian-American female, I share a lot of privileges with straight white men,” she says.

“There’s a lot of positive association: Asian women today are considered sexually desirable, they’re considered smart, and hard workers. Absolutely nobody’s ever going to assume I’m a criminal.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 30, 2016 as "Total Lee". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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