Young Jean Lee’s Theater of the Absurd

This January, Korean-born Young Jean Lee went from emerging playwright to the new voice of Downtown theatre with the acclaim for her race-skewing “THE SHIPMENT.” Lee was awarded as a director and writer (with an OBIE, to name just one), and received accolades from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer; now it’s on a world tour. Consisting of an entirely African American cast, “THE SHIPMENT” takes on the tensions that result from its production—an Asian woman directing black actors for a white audience. We spoke to Lee as she prepares what would seem an unlikely next project, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which mounts at Soho Rep this Winter. Concurrently, and at the age of just 34, Lee’s first six plays will be released by TCG Books. Lee’s work is filled with moments so gracefully scripted in their awakwardness, that the audence laughs not just at the stage, but at the director, and themselves. (PHOTO BY GENE PITTMAN, COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER)

LEILA BRILLSON: You’ve always said that you ask yourself what is the play you least want to write, and then write it. What has been your most uncomfortable creative moment? Have you ever written something and thought, “Oh wow, now I’ve really done it?”

YOUNG JEAN LEE: My most uncomfortable moment was working on the first two workshops of “THE SHIPMENT,” which were a disaster. I was trying, as a Korean-American, to make a Black identity-politics show, and the results were as bad as one would expect. I ended up throwing out my entire script and recasting the show and starting over from scratch. I think everyone was a little shocked when the final version turned out to be good.

LB: What makes you uncomfortable? Have you gotten any really bizarre responses from audience members?

YJL: During one of “THE SHIPMENT” workshops, the cast members were ironically doing all of these really stereotypical dances onstage and started encouraging the audience to come up and dance with them. We didn’t think anyone would, but all these people jumped onstage and started dancing, thinking it was a genuine moment. I felt bad for everyone involved.

LB: What did you set out to do with “THE SHIPMENT?” What do you think you ended up actually doing? Do you think most critics “got it”?

YJL: I wanted to make a show that reflected my cast’s race-related concerns in an unexpected way that wouldn’t make the audience tune out, since a lot of people shut down when confronted with your garden-variety identity-politics. I generally embrace all good press, no matter what it says. My shows tend to be full of contradictory ideas that don’t achieve any resolution, so there’s never any one “right” interpretation.

LB: “King Lear” is such a dramatic shift away from your previous original work. Why did you decide to do Shakespeare right now? What about Lear draws you in?

YJL: I was writing my dissertation on “King Lear” before I dropped out of Berkeley. I’ve always liked the play’s sprawling complexity and messiness. It’s full of crazy language, very experimental. Also I wanted to do a tragedy because my father has been really sick for the past year and that’s where my head is at.

LB: Will it be only a thematic interpretation, or are you using Shakespearean language? Will you play with race in it as well?

YJL: Rehearsals just started, so it’s hard to say. At this point there’s a decent chance that the only thing about it related to “King Lear” will be the title.

The Soho Rep Theater is located at 86 Franklin Street, Fourth Floor, New York.