An Interview with Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee is a playwright, director, actor, and filmmaker. She is perhaps best known for the work she produced in collaboration with her theater company, including the critically acclaimed shows SONG OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN, THE SHIPMENT, and UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW. In 2018, Lee became the first Asian-American woman to have her play produced on Broadway with her show STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College, and is currently an Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. Poetry board member Devonne Pitts corresponded with Young Jean Lee by email in January 2020.

DP: You’re widely considered “one of the best experimental playwrights in America” (Time Out New York) What and who initially compelled you to work within the avant-garde?

YJL: I studied to be a Shakespeare scholar for almost ten years before I quit to work in experimental theater instead. My abandoned dissertation was a comparison of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR (my favorite Shakespeare play) and the anonymous KING LEAR that Shakespeare stole his plot from. I expected the original KING LEIR to really suck, but was surprised by how enjoyable a read it was. I found it much snappier and more coherent than Shakespeare’s version, which is sprawling, crazy, and messy. But Shakespeare’s version is massively more interesting. So I think the reason why I didn’t respond to mainstream contemporary theater was because the best of it felt much closer to KING LEIR than to KING LEAR. Entertaining and easy vs. wild and challenging. So weirdly, I think it was my love of Shakespeare that helped to drive me toward experimental theater.

DP: Very rarely, if ever, is a play written without the intention of some sort of physical embodiment. Therefore, playwriting differs, to some extent, from the kinds of writing often published in this magazine. How do you position playwriting within the realm of literature? I mean, we’ve all probably had to read some Shakespeare, or maybe another playwright, in a high school English class, so I wonder what you think of the literary value of playwriting, outside of its primary function as the starting point for a physical production?

YJL: I think that playwriting has tremendous literary value, as is evidenced by the continuing impact of Shakespeare. A screenplay is a blueprint for film production, but the published script of a play is a document of an existing theatrical production, so I think plays have as much literary merit as anything else.

DP: In a recent Twitter post, you mentioned how the first song you wrote, “I’m Spending Christmas Alone,” spurred the creation of your band, Future Wife, whose music eventually found its way into your show WE’RE GONNA DIE. This made me curious as to how do you, an artist creating work within multiple artforms (theater, film, music), channel your creative energies across the various mediums? In other words, how do you know when you want to write a play, instead of making a film or working on another song with your band?

YJL: The form tends to come out of the content. So for example, WE’RE GONNA DIE was written to comfort people who felt alone in their pain, and singing seemed comforting.

DP: After reading about the creative process behind THE SHIPMENT, where you collaborated with an ensemble of black actors to create a show about the challenges of portraying black identity, I wonder if you see your work modeling ways for artists of different cultural identities to collaborate in the future? And do you hope to see yourself collaborating with other artists in this vein again in the near future?

YJL: I’ve co-written a screenplay with my Lakota friend Jesse Short Bull using a similar method to the one I used for THE SHIPMENT. I think the key to cross-cultural collaboration is just listening.

DP: In 2018, you became the first Asian-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, with your work, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. In his coverage of your work for The New Yorker, Hilton Als wrote that with STRAIGHT WHITE MEN you wanted to explore the straight white male character (a figure you “did not entirely understand”) through a genre you “hadn’t fully explored” prior to this production. Here, he’s referencing how this play, in comparison to your other works, exhibits a more naturalistic, traditional approach to theatermaking. As someone who has explored themes of racial and gender identity within both traditional and experimental works, do you think traditional forms of theater have the ability to adequately challenge the ways racial and gender inequity has ingrained itself within the artform’s own history? Or do you think the avant-garde has more to offer along these lines?

YJL: I think that it’s incredibly difficult to really challenge an audience with a traditional naturalistic play. The audience feels so safe and secure under the protection of the fourth wall, and the only real tool at the playwright's disposal is audience identification with the characters. It’s very limiting.

DP: The catalyst for your creative process seems to change from project to project: whether it be your worst nightmare for what a play could be (SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN), your most uncomfortable challenge as a writer (THE SHIPMENT), or your first song (WE’RE GONNA DIE). As someone who has developed works from a wide variety of inspirations, I wonder if you could impart any words of wisdom for those theatermakers out there who may be wondering how to get started?

YJL: If you want to write a play, the first step is to pick something to write about that you really care about—something that will be able to sustain your interest for the one to three years it will take to develop and produce the work. The second step is to write maniacally, by which I mean you just write and experiment and try things out without thinking too much about it. The thing beginning playwrights don’t understand is how much of the play gets figured out through the process of writing. Often my students will write pages and pages of mind-numbingly dull monologues about a character’s backstory, and they’ll be like, “This is unreadable, I’m terrible!” They don’t realize that what they’re writing is gold. Even though it may all get deleted in the end, they are learning about their characters, their world, and their play through this glorious bad writing they’re doing. As an artist, as long as you’re learning, you’re winning.