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Young Jean Lee: Playwright Provocateur
On identity issues:
“I guess I don’t like stereotyping. I have issues with identity when it’s used for the purpose of stereotyping because that is linked to complacency. To say that an entire group of people is one way is really, I think, kind of terrible.”
On her quick success in the theatre world:
“When I made the decision to leave [academia] and do theater, I was so starved because I had spent my entire life never having pursued something that I actually wanted to do. I think I was 26 or 27, maybe even 28, but you know I was older, and there was a lifetime of frustrated desire behind me. So when I found it, it was like falling in love, when I found the place where I belonged, I just threw myself into it. And I think when you have that kind of total, unambiguous feeling that this is what you want, and there’s no ambivalence whatsoever, there’s a real energy behind that and I think that’s why things happened so quickly. I was kind of relentless.”
On her playwriting process:
“The way I begin all my plays is by asking myself what would be the last play in the world I’d ever want to write, and then forcing myself to write it. Because if I tell myself to write something really great, then I become completely paralyzed.
On topic matter of her plays:
“It’s kind of a semi-egotistical thing – you pick a really hard thing to do and then you see if you can pull it off. And it’s kind of a crazy way of working, because my reach does exceed my grasp and then it’s really difficult to make it happen.”
On her unique play structures:
“My enemy is complacency. I hate it in myself and I hate it in general. I think it leads to really bad things happening, where everything in your world just validates your beliefs, so you’re constantly being stroked and told that you’re right and you never have to question any of your beliefs or ideas. I think that’s so dangerous. I feel like if you go to see a work of theatre and it just reinforces all of your pre-existing beliefs and you get exactly what you’re expecting – I don’t think that’s good for people. I’ve never stated it in such a moralistic way, but I guess I do feel moralistic about it because, on principle, I think it’s good to ask questions, to have things split apart and become fragmented and contradictory.”
On the “hitting” video in Songs of the Dragons:
“Well, honestly, sometimes things just pop into my head. They don’t really come out of any logic, and I make sense of them after the fact. The hitting video now makes sense to me, but when I first thought of it, it just popped into my head as the right way to begin the show… To get hit in the face is something so deeply personal and insulting, and just so horrifying. And I got hit in the face for about 20 minutes. After the fact, when I was thinking about how it fit into the show, I felt like it was really a play on Asian self-hatred.”
The Washington Post
Review: 'Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven' at Studio Theatre
By Peter Marks
Friday, October 8, 2010
If you're going to be discomfited, harangued and quite possibly even dragged onto the stage, let it be by someone as scathingly mischievous as Young Jean Lee. Her wildly sardonic performance piece at Studio Theatre, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," is a provocateur's funny, guns-blazing take on the utter banality of ethnic stereotypes and other cross-cultural outrages.
Mind you, public-service announcement material this is not. "Songs of the Dragons" begins with a recording of a man repeatedly hitting a woman, and what follows is an unsettling series of sequences of varying degrees of shock value and satire: three Korean women in traditional costumes, taking turns punching and kicking a young Korean-American woman; a porno-style shadow-puppet play; a rousing Korean version of "Amazing Grace"; a dull white couple interrupting the proceedings to air their run-of-the-mill relationship issues.
The events of "Songs of the Dragons" are not tied together dramatically in a classic sense: The play segues uncertainly from one vignette to another and ends in a most bizarrely anti-climactic fashion. The connectedness springs from the idea that any assigning we try to do of behavior by ethnic identity is patently ridiculous. And just as ludicrous, "Songs of the Dragons" tells us, is the "Kumbaya" notion that we could ever walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.
"There is minority rage inside me!" mutters the evening's main character, engagingly played by Jiehae Park and identified in the program only as "Korean American." She addresses us directly, as if the 90-minute play were a town hall grievance session, and confides what she believes to be scandalous realities about the nation's racist pecking order. "Asian women," she declares snippily, "will date white men that no white woman will touch" -- the kind of generalization that carries its own whiff of bias.
Like the comedian Sarah Silverman, Lee is a subversive who toys with our accepted wisdom about identity and femininity. In her case, it's the perceptions of and expectations about Asian women that she's undermining. A large portion of "Songs of the Dragons" is given over to the portrayal of the three gowned Korean women, identified as Koreans 1 through 3 and portrayed with an enjoyable verve by Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song and Youngsun Cho. They mercilessly taunt Park's character, a woman who is alienated from her ethnic heritage.
If that were not ostracism enough, the women -- depicted so often as shy and demure in gauzy works of fiction with titles like that of Lee's play -- begin taking turns beating the daylights out of her. The sequence goes on and on; it's so brutal that you laugh at the audacity of it. All through "Songs of the Dragons" are moments meant to explode an audience's complacency, its typically passive role in the theater. Several times, the actors beseech theatergoers to join them on Luciana Stecconi's utilitarian rendering of a temple, in Studio's penthouse raw space, where they tend to look a little bewildered.
Lee seems perfectly content staying one or two steps ahead of her audience. Part of the pleasure of "Songs of the Dragons" is in letting down your guard and simply allowing her jarring images to force themselves rambunctiously into your imagination.
The play, first produced in New York in 2006 and here presented as part of Studio's 2nd Stage program, retains its day-of freshness thanks to a director, Natsu Onoda Power, who's plugged in to the dramatist's no-holds-barred circuitry. In its slyly eccentric way, it's an evening of enlightenment.
By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Set, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Elisheba Ittoop; fight and dance choreography, Joe Isenberg; lighting, Joyce Liao; video, Tae Jung Choi. With Rachel Holt, Brandon McCoy. About 90 minutes.
Jiehae Park (Korean American)
Patricia Penn (Korean 1)
Sue Jin Song (Korean 2)
Youngsun Cho (Korean 3)
Rachel Holt (White Person 1)
Brandon McCoy (White Person 2)
Director and Designers
Natsu Onoda Power (Director)
Luciana Stecconi (Setting)
Joyce Liao (Lighting)
Laree Ashley Lentz (Costumes)
Elisheba Ittoop (Sound/Original Music)
In Conversation with director Natsu Onoda Power on
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
In a recent interview in American Theatre, Lee states that when starting a new project, she forces herself to write the worst play she can imagine and then completely destroys it. How does or doesn’t this fit with your vision of the play?
I think the play is a very sophisticated parody. By saying "parody," I don't mean that the play is "making fun of something" (though, admittedly, it is super hilarious), but the play reworks something, some existing convention or genre (in this case it's Asian American identity narratives), with a mastery of that form AND "critical distance." It comments on it by repeating it. The play, in reception, marks the difference between itself and what it's parodying, "destroying" both. She does this without diminishing the stakes in what is "parodied," but rather really gets at its core, dissecting the impulse behind such narratives. It's this multilayered explosion that is so unsettling and liberating at the same time.
I think it is a very demanding play, both for the performers and the audience. Its one thing to be able to "engage with" and/or "talk about" race (or any "hot button" issue...). It's quite another to be able to laugh about it, without dismissing it or losing stakes.
Lee is famously known for directing all of her works. Does this affect your approach to directing Songs in any way?
I was nervous about this. When I talked with Young Jean on the phone earlier this summer, she assured me that I should approach the play as a text, and work with it like I would with any play. She was super supportive, positive, and open... but that doesn't solve everything. In some way, our production will never be "right" no matter what we do... simply because it is directed by someone that is not Young Jean Lee. It loses the immediacy of the writer directing her own words, and transforming it in rehearsals in a dynamic, fluid way with her actors. We just have to accept that our production will lack that momentum.
But that's not saying that we won't have an interesting, exquisite production --- the play will gain new meanings, being embodied in this way, in DC, by us. I am very excited about the marvelous work that our design team has done so far. I think this is an important moment in the life of this play, which will have many more incarnations, in many other cities, with many other directors directing it, I am sure.
As a side note... Like Young Jean Lee, I have only done "devised" and "ensemble-developed" works myself for the last ten years. So, working with an already-written script is an unusual experience for me in itself.
Songs quickly jumps from comedic to darker topics, often overlapping the two. How do you balance the humorous with the more serious moments in this piece?
I think both of these impulses should be present at any moment in the show. I don't think it's about balance, I think it's about excess and embracing that excess. Things get so dark that it becomes ridiculous. Things are so funny that it is disturbing.
The white couple stands out dramatically in this piece and has little interaction with the Asian characters in the play. How do you see these characters fitting in the play?
They really don't "fit" at all, and that is sort of the point, I think. They are minorities in this play. Their dialogue is so hilariously stilted at times that I think it sounds like a "summary" of some other conversation that is actually more complicated and intricate. But then again, the issues they talk about are real and painful in a relatable way. They are supposed to be stereotypes of "white people," but they are actually stereotypes of "young urban middle-class," which we equate with whiteness. My favorite exchange is when they say "Are you happy you are white?" "I don't think about it much." When you are white, you have the privilege of "not thinking about it much."
In this racially based satire, a young Korean-American woman summons up all her rage in a comical rant about how Asian-Americans are sorely underestimated and will one day rule the world! She is interrupted, however, by three Asian women playfully dancing around the stage in nothing less than full-on traditional Asian garb. The women taunt our moody young narrator bringing her into their gossip about prostitution, giant dragons in parades and the Bible. Yet when a white couple interrupts the Asian variety show to discuss their failing relationship, the balance of power begins to shift.