The Theater of Young Jean Lee: An Experiment in Perturbation

by Mark Gatlin

The work of Young Jean Lee, a South Korean-born playwright raised in the American Pacific Northwest, acutely unsettles and embarrasses audiences—sentiments the author endorses since they are precisely the motivation behind writing and directing her plays. Lee, an English undergraduate major, studied Shakespeare in the UC Berkeley PhD program for six years before moving to New York City. After taking an MFA from Brooklyn College under the tutelage of Mac Wellman, she began working in theater and has enjoyed growing success in bringing to audiences experimental theater with a saw-tooth edge.

Experimental theater challenges conventions, asking serious questions about traditional relationships between writers, directors, and audiences. A potential problem with contemporary experimental theater, however, is that after decades of existence the originally unique, innovative departures from conventional theater have themselves become somewhat mainstream, a concept Lee touched upon in a recent communication when she stated, “I think a problem with experimental theater is when it gets locked into its own kind of tradition and you just see a bunch of experimental-theater clichés being played out.”

So what does one do with avant-garde theater that has, itself, grown conventions? Founded in 2003, the Young Jean Lee Theater Company (YJLTC) produces performances written and directed by Lee, flavored by input from company members of rich, diverse backgrounds. According to the company’s web site, their aim is to, “. . . deal with major issues in unpredictable and complicated ways that stick in people’s minds and challenge them to think rather than reaffirming their pre-existing beliefs.” Enjoying runs in venues across New York City, Lee’s plays have also been produced in over thirty cities around the world, her wry wit and keen sense of irony resonating with audiences of broad cultural diversity. Lee’s plays have an everyman appeal to them—messages that span barriers of race, culture, and gender to reach audiences in what feels like a concerted effort to challenge the conservative, complacent state of contemporary theater. In the author’s own words, “I think that contemporary American theater is very aesthetically conservative, and that it charges way too much for tickets. I hate going to see a show where everyone in the audience looks wealthy.”

To this end Lee pushes audiences, nudging our awareness through outraged sensibilities and upended systems of thought and reasoning. She challenges us to laugh at inappropriate times and to cringe in the face of bald truth in plays like The Shipment in which she considers notions of stereotypes and blanket mentalities that govern our lives whether we are aware of the governing or not and in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven which features characters torn between racial identities and turns a comedic focus on the notion of white America becoming a minority within the borders of their own country.

Lee’s Lear shocked and confused critics who seemed reluctant to go with experimental theater if it demanded a foray into the world of the untouchable Bard. Lee, however, found such a foray a natural and worthy excursion, stating, “I actually think of Shakespeare as being an experimental playwright. King Lear (by Anonymous) was a traditional play. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not.” Audiences, however, found both breadth and depth in an adaptation in which neither the King nor Gloucester make an appearance. Instead, their children engage us in a ribald journey of awareness regarding the nature of death, loss, and grief—points punctuated by a direct confrontation between actor and audience, a challenge, ostensibly, regarding our very presence in the playhouse.

Lee’s latest work, Untitled Feminist Show is a powerfully disquieting incursion of song, dance, and spectacle seeking to erase illusionary boundaries regarding gender roles and the parts they play in our lives. Lee states on her web site, “I’ve found that the best way to make theater that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable.” When I asked what about Untitled Feminist Show makes her uncomfortable, the author responded, “…how badly the subject makes audience members freak out and how difficult it is to present it in such a way that they’re able to absorb it and not just dismiss it.”

Just how badly can a consideration of an already well-measured concept freak us out? Untitled Feminist Show opens to a world premiere on January 5, 2012, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before premiering in New York City on January 12. Given the flavor of her past work, Show promises the same wild ride—sans seatbelts—from which we emerge with fresh, if not disturbing, perspectives on our world and about ourselves. In Lee’s own words, “The show challenges the audiences’ assumptions about what a woman is and lets them become aware of what they project onto people when they think they know what gender they are.”

It may be true that Lee’s concept of stereotype awareness is not new in her body of work but this particular focus of her lens is, from an author whose writing gets better with each jab she thrusts into the collective audience eye—jabs aimed at flooring us, to be sure, but not to knock out or keep us down.

Mark Gatlin earned his M.F.A. from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He designs and teaches online English, British, World Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition curricula and teaches campus-based courses at Old Dominion and Regent University. His areas of specialty include writing creatively in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, and drama; the rhetoric of writing and compositional studies; and American literature. Mr. Gatlin, the author of short fiction, poetry, and drama, acts as faculty advisor for a university press magazine and is an active participant at national conferences.