Black like them
Nervy playwright Young Jean Lee treads the color line.
Mon Jan 5 2009
For a playwright who has built a career on pushing buttons and daring us to despise her, Korean-American author Young Jean Lee finally sounds scared. Lee, 34, was recently lauded for her mock-evangelical lampoon Church and now she’s about to open The Shipment, a black-identity show that dabbles in minstrelsy, Dave Chappelle--isms and a running gag on the sensuality of poop. But her newest theatrical provocation didn’t come easy.
Much has already been made of Lee’s masochistic approach to drama: She identifies the play she least wants to write and then does it. That tactic yielded Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006), a Korean-American identity spoof that dripped with irony and grotesque stereotypes. So far, it’s her most celebrated work, having toured the U.S. and Europe.
But the strategy also works against her. Lee has written about the nasty side effect of being known for political incorrectness: She notes on her blog (youngjeanlee.org) that one pal makes “ironic” Asian jokes around her, “completely oblivious to the fact that I would become increasingly stone-faced every time he did it.” Although Lee doesn’t go blindly into controversy, work on The Shipment clearly intimidated her. “I just didn’t want to write this play,” she admits. “I’ve never had a project that failed so badly, so frequently. We had two workshops, and after each one I had to rip it up and start over from the beginning.”
Usually capable of churning out a script per year, Lee has been rewriting The Shipment for almost two, trying to get the tone right. She chronicled her artistic process online, mulling over how to break through white complacency. The blog delves into questions about rights versus privileges, the nuances of “get whitey” language and dueling historical perspectives. The play itself whips between queasily hilarious stand-up and deadpan naturalism. “The first half makes everybody paranoid,” Lee says with a chuckle, “but the second half tastes like candy. It’s like we’re training an audience how to be sensitive to racial cues.”
The work still isn’t over. “The script is changing every day,” Lee says. “Writing is always a collaborative process for me; I’m always taking cues from my actors. But this time was different, in that I really had almost nothing to contribute in terms of content. I mean, obviously: I’m not black.”
In her quest to make an identity-politics play that circumvents the typical, dismissive response to such work (“I’m the same way! If someone says, there’s an identity-politics play happening, I don’t jump right up”) Lee has learned a boatload. “As an Asian-American, I’m just not conscious of a lot of day-to-day racism. But for my black performers, casual racism very much still exists. It was a shock. Because aren’t we supposed to be more enlightened than that?”
The Shipment is at the Kitchen through Jan 24.