Of the current generation of experimental New York theatre makers, Young Jean Lee has probably been the most celebrated, not only in the US but throughout the world. Strangely though this is the first time that one of her company’s productions has been seen in the UK. It’s also the first show that she’s performed in herself. When I first met Lee at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in 2009, I asked her if she’d ever performed in any of her shows. She insisted that she absolutely wasn’t a performer and the prospect terrified her. From very early on in her career though, Lee has consistently set herself the challenge of thinking of the play she least wants to make and then making it. This has always led her to explore what she feels most uncomfortable with, most scared of. Considering this, I should have known back then, that it would only be a matter of time before I’d be seeing her on stage.
Lee is probably best known for a series of plays that deal with contemporary American identity politics: her own as a Korean-American woman (Songs of the Flying Dragons Flying to Heaven, Untitled Feminist Show) and that of her cast (The Shipment, the forthcoming Straight White Men) about African American and white heterosexual male identities respectively. In writing about identity from the point of view of a complete outsider, she has bee questioning the mechanisms of identity politics and the pervasive narrative of “authenticity” that sits at its centre. When her work deals with stereotypes, it can take on an arch cartoonish satirical aspect, which is very funny and places her very much within a US of Downtown New York theatre but what makes her stand out from the crowd is the way she can go from this to moments of absolute, brutal honesty: the text equivalent of blood-letting on stage.
This rawness is on display at its most intense during one of the monologues in We’re Gonna Die, in which Lee tells the horrific story of the days leading up her father’s recent death from lung cancer: the miracle drug trial that provided a glimmer of hope, the waking up in the middle of the night screaming, the horror of the whole experience. Though it is clearly very hard for her to get through, it feels that nobody else could tell this story because it is something that happened to her. Asking someone else to do it would be cheating. There’s something extraordinary that happens between her and the audience through that act of generosity. When the songs come in between the monologues, they are moments of relief and celebration both for Lee and for the audience. The gig and play hybrid suits its subject matter perfectly and becomes more than the sum of its parts.
We’re Gonna Die is an exploration of loneliness and pain and how we can get through these moments, how none of us are exempt from suffering. Being snubbed by a friend at school, your first boyfriend moving out of the flat you’ve been sharing, hearing your mother say she’ll never love you as much as she loves your sister. There’s a simplicity to both the format and the music, which is literary American indie-pop in the spirit of the Magnetic Fields and the Mountain Goats. Like all of Lee’s work, the form and the gesture of the piece are integral to what it is and the gesture here isn’t as complex as something like The Shipment but it is raw and effective. It does what it sets out to do. It’s also a gesture that is not about confronting the audience but about comforting them. It’s not about irony but about total honesty and sincerity.
Through sharing her own pain, Lee inevitably makes us think about own: about losses, absences. Maybe we’ve overcome these and maybe we’re still going through them. In any case, We’re Gonna Die reminds us that we are not alone and we are not special. For the final number, the audience join in on the chorus of “I’m gonna Die, I’m gonna die someday/ Then I’ll be gone and it’ll be okay”. And it will.
The run of We’re Gonna Die at Brighton Festival is over but you can watch a recording of an earlier performance at Joe’s Pub in New York here.