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The button-pushing playwright returns to a 2011 cabaret experiment, but takes herself off the stage
In 2018, Young Jean Lee became the first Asian American woman to have a play produced on Broadway with Straight White Men at Second Stage Theater. But before she shattered that glass ceiling, the Korean American writer-director spent 16 years creating boundary-breaking works that pushed the limits of politically charged cringe comedy and in-your-face experimentation. She unflinchingly depicted the neuroses of Asian American women (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), dramatized the African American experience in irreverent vaudeville (The Shipment) and riffed on Shakespeare to explore how to cope with the demise of a parent (Lear), to name just a handful.
Her latest opus, We're Gonna Die, is actually a reimagining of one from the vaults. A sort-of cabaret show, it premiered in 2011 at Joe's Pub with Lee (who's not a performer) fronting a pop band and telling intense stories about childhood fears, breakups and her father's passing in between up-tempo numbers about pain, suffering, death and acceptance. The genre-defying piece won an Obie Award and, over the years, Lee did other performances of it, including two runs at Lincoln Center Theater. But now the show is being resurrected at Second Stage's Off-Broadway house as an entirely reconceived production, helmed by director-choreographer Raja Feather Kelly and starring Janelle McDermoth. Lee talked to TDF Stages about why this show is back, the veracity of its tales and why she's glad she's off-stage this time around.
David Cote: Do you consider this iteration of We're Gonna Die a revival?
Young Jean Lee: I don't know what the term would be. It bears like no resemblance to the original whatsoever. If you change everything, is it still a revival?
Cote: How did this production come about?
Lee: Carole [Rothman, artistic director of Second Stage] is so great because if she likes your work, she wants to program it. She doesn't do a ton of calculation. That's how the Broadway thing happened. I had a general meeting with her, and she was like, "We want to commission you to do a show and we're going to put it on Broadway." And then, she went, "Oh, I don't want to wait that long to put a new play of yours in the theatre. Let's do Straight White Men." The idea just occurred to her and then it happened. My new play still wasn't ready, and she was like, "I want to do another play of yours. Why don't we do We're Gonna Die?"
Cote: How did Raja Feather Kelly come on board as director?
Lee: I've known Raja for a while and loved his choreography. I kept asking him, "Do you want to direct? I feel like you'd be a really interesting director." And he said, "I would love to, but nobody's asked me." We had this conversation three times in a row [after shows he choreographed]. After Fairview, after The House That Will Not Stand and after A Strange Loop, and then We're Gonna Die happened. I couldn't direct because I was teaching at Stanford. I definitely didn't want to be in it, and Second Stage wanted something new. Raja popped into my head.
Cote: I saw your original 2011 production at Joe's Pub and I have to admit, I was totally surprised to see you up there performing—and you were really good! I know your modus operandi is to write plays that you would never want to write. Did you apply that same philosophy to getting up on stage?
Lee: Oh my God, it was actually the worst project I've ever done in terms of horrible challenges, because I had no desire to perform and had no performing ability. It was just a horrifying idea to me. I like extremes and so I thought, what would be the most extreme version of performance? I thought a one-person show with singing and dancing would be the worst thing I could imagine. The level of fear and dread that I felt through that entire process was potentially not worth it, even though it worked out.
Cote: Despite the title, and the motifs of decay and death, the show is frequently funny and even soothing.
Lee: For me, the theme was always comfort. I was in a terrible place emotionally after my father died, and I felt completely alone. I wanted to make a show that could offer some solace to people who were feeling that way—isolated in their pain. Most of the ways that people try to comfort are not effective when you're experiencing grief. The only real comfort was that I was going through a human experience that many other people were also going through, and that I was neither cursed nor blessed, just an ordinary person who experienced something terrible.
Cote: Are all the stories in the show real? Your experiences?
Lee: First, yes, and second, no. I started asking everybody, "What is the time when you felt the most alone?" And everybody told me their stories and then I put them in the show. The story about my dad, that is my story. Others are from people I know.
Cote: Do you actually like musicals and cabaret?
Lee: I've always loved musicals, but cabaret shows are harder for me. I have a short attention span and it's hard for me to listen to the same person speaking and singing over and over. Concerts are also hard for me. So a big challenge of the show was how to keep someone like me interested. I think the reason why I like musicals is there's lots of variety—people don't talk for too long, sing for too long or dance for too long.
Cote: At Joe's Pub, it was sort of a cabaret performance. Is it now sort of a musical?
Lee: Raja and Janelle McDermoth are not doing it like cabaret show at all. I guess it's closer to a musical. It's some sort of hybrid: a show that has music and monologues in it. It's very hard to pin down.
Cote: Would you ever write a bona fide book musical?
Lee: I'm working on a musical musical now! We'll see if they like it, but it's pretty crazy. It's kind of me going back to crazytown, but in terms of genre, a musical, straight up.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for We're Gonna Die. Go here to browse our current offers.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in NYC. Follow him at @davidcote. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Janelle McDermoth in We're Gonna Die. Photo by Joan Marcus.