Young Jean Lee! Young Jean Lee! Young Jean Lee!
Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show comes to the Walker this weekend! Raise the alarm! Sound the call! Gather the masses!
Seriously, Mad King Thomas has been excited for this show ever since, oh, what? Six months ago? A year ago? Whenever the promo came out and we saw those three little words: Young Jean Lee. We marked our calendars, we speculated about how early we could get tickets, we planned holiday vacations around it.
Okay, so we’re a little in love. It started back in 2007 when we saw Songs of a Dragon Flying to Heaven while we were in the early stages of working on Premium White Morsels. Here was a woman who dared to speak boldly, take risks, hop straight into the middle of racism and thrash around until we laughed, wildly and uncomfortably.
It was breathtaking, brilliant, inspiring, as was the question-and-answer session following the performance and the workshop we took the next day. She talked about how she started writing that play by trying to write the worst play possible. She talked about hating identity plays, and then making herself write one. How uncomfortable it made her. It's all over her artist statement:
"When starting a play, I ask myself, "What's the last play in the world I would ever want to write?" Then I force myself to write it. I do this because I've found that the best way to make theater that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable. I work with stories that I find trite and embarrassing, I keep the development of the text as open and unstable as possible throughout the rehearsal and performance process, and I emphasize rather than hide problems in the text and production. I'm constantly trying to find value in unexpected places. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure and incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and awkwardness involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience." -Young Jean Lee
And that is part of the genius of Young Jean Lee’s work. She is not only unafraid of making the audience uncomfortable, but she delves into the places that make her terribly uncomfortable. Well, maybe she’s terrified, but she looks that terror in the face and proceeds to craft a show that confronts with humor, cleverness and audacity. As the promo quotes her saying, “My work has never been about lecturing and bullying people. “It’s been about tricking and confusing them into submission in a playful/fanged way.”
She’s really a terribly articulate woman. I love reading interviews with her, and she is one of the few artists who makes staying for the Q&A worth it. Lee manages to take the inevitably stupid questions that audiences limply throw at her and unfurl relevant answers.
Young Jean Lee is also responsible in part for our obsession with failure. She’s said some pretty brilliant things about embracing failure (she pretty much asked a fellow artist whom she was interviewing to slap her if her plays ever stopped risking failure) but if you want accuracy, you’ll have to look them up, because at this point everything surrounding Young Jean Lee is mythic, and I can obviously only give embellished praise.
She leaves the door open for failure, but mostly invites devastating success. Sure, maybe a little failure has snuck in as well. I didn’t love Church, her last Walker appearance. But even her failures (if we are so bold as to call it that, since it was not as striking and brilliant as Songs) are beautifully rendered, eloquently scripted, and worth taking a risk on.