Young Jean Lee’s body of work defies literary genre: Lee remakes her work alongside her theatrical process with every show, attacking each new project with fearlessness and dark humor. The daring and range of her work have earned her a reputation as one of the most audacious voices of the contemporary avant garde: “a playwright of daring talent” (New York Times), a “poet of transcendent self-loathing and spiritual yearning” (Time Out New York).
Lee grew up in Pullman, Washington to Korean parents who immigrated to the United States with a two-year-old Young Jean in tow. Navigating her identity as a Korean-American by flying under the radar for most of her education, she found herself in a PhD program at Berkeley, studying to become a Shakespeare professor. She never considered writing plays until her therapist probed her to offer an alternative career to her increasingly unrewarding academic work and she surprised herself with the answer: “I want to be a playwright.”
Lee found her way to Brooklyn College’s MFA program where playwriting teacher Mac Wellman gave her the life-changing assignment to write the worst play she could imagine. Lee wrote about the Romantic Poets, whose work she hates. The Appeal, produced in 2004 at Soho Rep, is an anachronistic take on English Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Written for period dress and contemporary, almost slack language, the play was praised by Time Out New York as a “profane and tough-minded literary example of literary vandalism.”
The play cracked open her process—Lee had been writing what she considered derivative imitations of her favorite writers, and began to source her work from her own discomfort. After The Appeal, her creative process was established: She brainstorms the play she finds most embarrassing as an idea, that she absolutely least wants to write. She then casts the play, and starts to develop it in conversation with her actors.
Her company, Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company, operated from 2003-2016, and produced all of her theatrical work. The company received support from residencies, commissions, and significant funding from foundations—the National Endowment for the Arts, the Doris Duke Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Rockefeller MAP Fund, among others, as well as the PEN Award, two OBIE Awards, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts.
Lee’s breakthrough piece was Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006), created in response to her nightmare of a “predictable, confessional Korean-American identity play with a flowery Asian-sounding title.” Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven explores Korean-American and Asian-American identity, deploying stereotypes and racist jokes—alongside the disinterest of a white couple whose fraying relationship eventually overwhelms the narrative. The New Yorker called it “a powerful, humorous, and startling work about the author’s violence toward herself and, subsequently, toward her female Asian characters.”
And from there, Lee continued to create; her work includes Church (2007), her attempt to stage a truly religious experience within the evangelical tradition of her youth; The Shipment (2008), which juxtaposed stereotypes of African-American lives with modes of performance with those that code as white American, created from the input of her African-American cast; Untitled Feminist Show (2011), which put gender and its myths at the center of a nearly wordless piece; and Straight White Men (2014), a theatrical study of the luckiest social group in history. These genre-defying works are distinct from one another in their aesthetic and concerns, but are all built on the anatomized building blocks of culture: stereotypes and oddity, incongruous but evocative imagery presented with a sense of disarming goofiness and directness that keeps the work off-kilter. As critic Kai Wright reflected in The Root about The Shipment, Lee’s work “puts an awkward undertow on what should be madcap comedy. That’s Lee’s broader goal: to scramble the audience’s racial cues enough so that we’re on edge, and perhaps a little too self-aware of how we’re reacting to the stereotypes as they unfold. (Or even how we’re reacting to what the lady sitting a couple seats over is doing.)”
Lee finds a new way to make each of her plays, directing her own work with an equally keen eye for visual storytelling and a profound belief in the power of collaboration. “Going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places,” Lee says. “What I am going for with every show is to get in the way of the audience’s self-complacency, or to put a little piece of gravel into their brains that irritates them. Correspondingly, every show I’ve ever done has forced me to change and become a different kind of person and a different kind of artist.”