Young Jean Lee


“Pretty much every single one of my shows falls under the category of ‘bad idea.’”
Fruitful conditions for becoming a playwright:
Getting kicked out of a playwriting group
Years of therapy

Young Jean Lee’s straight black hair is decisively asymmetrical, cut from one ear to swoop around the back of her head before angling down, brushing the opposite shoulder like the tip of a raven’s wing.

In Lear, Lee’s uncanny and profound 2010 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, a character, richly corseted in a jewel-hued gown, interrupts a conversation about funerals to declare, “Sometimes I feel sad at them, but other times I feel like: look at all the fashion!” There is a lot to look at, and as much to listen to, in Lee’s work—presumably only a keyhole glimpse into her wonderful, if terrifying, imagination. She once told the Nation how in an early work, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, she began with an image of several traditionally dressed Korean women “scuttling around the stage like crabs” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and, in her words, “miming gruesome suicides.” It doesn’t really make any sense when you hear it, she said, but when you see it onstage, that song goes perfectly with the image. Lee’s theater presents a physical and psychic space where grief, insanity, and comedy run together without clear boundaries, alternately shocking and delighting. The songs go perfectly with the images.

In addition to exploring the seriously mixed bag of human feeling, Lee possesses an unrelenting interest in identity politics. It carries through much of her work, from the hilarious and harrowing Songs to the recent Untitled Feminist Show. This interest is perhaps best exemplified in Lee’s most well-known work, The Shipment, a witty examination of the many ways that African Americans were, are, and continue to be shaped by roles assigned to them by non–African Americans. The Shipment is political without being prescriptive, and with it Lee revitalized a form that has been overshadowed by nearly every other modern artistic medium.

Lee doesn’t strive to suppress her theatrical impulses. Instead, she figures out how to commit the most meaningful versions of them. She upholds the fantasy that a true artist possesses some preternatural creative capacity, as well as the conscious ability to make work that is politically lucid. But, like her hair, the power of Lee’s theater doesn’t lie strictly at either of these points but in the exhilarating arc between.

—Naomi Skwarna

THE BELIEVER: So is drama a way for you to stage multiple arguments?

YOUNG JEAN LEE: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. The one thing that’s been consistent throughout all of my shows is that there isn’t a single argument in them, ever. I’m not trying to make one point. I’m trying to lay out all of the conflict that I see, present it, and have you wrestle with it on your own. Theater allows me to present information in the way that I want to.

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Naomi Skwarna is an artist and theater critic living in Toronto.

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