Playwright Young Jean Lee discusses her first compilation, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays.
THEATERMANIA: The afterword of this book begins with you asking the question "What is the worst possible play I could write?" and using that as a mechanism for coming up with play ideas. What does the phrase "worst possible play" mean to you?
YOUNG JEAN LEE: I think of it in terms of what would be the most embarrassing subject for me. The reason why I came up with that method of writing was that I was being super-neurotic when I first started writing plays. I thought about all of the theater companies I really admired and I had this idea of what would be good theater and what would be cool theater. There's something about having that idea in your head as an artist that makes any kind of artistic work not vital. There's so much theater out there where you can tell that the writer/director had an idea about what a cool show was and then tried to make that. So for me, coming up with the worst idea I could think of was an effort to combat that. Removing the idea of what a good play should be, replacing it with my worst nightmare and then finding a way to make that nightmare bearable is what causes the interesting energy in the plays.
TM: A lot of your plays deal with issues of race. How does that fit into your playwriting approach?
YJL: In my world, doing anything having to do with race was probably the least cool thing you could do. I've always been really resistant to dealing with issues of race or even thinking about it. I grew up as one of the few people of color in a mostly white town and race was something that I just really didn't want to think about, so that's why it keeps showing up in my work.
YJL: I had the idea for the postcard long before I even knew what the play Songs was going to be about. A lot of times I can't really justify things. People ask me about the video of me getting hit in the face or the Mariah Carey suicides that feature in that play and I can't really provide any great insight. After the fact, I could make something up, but really, these things come about when something pops into my head, and then I have to make that thing. The image popped into my head almost exactly as it appears now. The problem with the postcard however, is that it just re-creates the stereotype, and that's the thing I hate the most. So often artists just present a stereotype straight up and when confronted, retreat by explaining that it is a critique, even though there's no critique in the work. Because I'm an Asian-American artist, there's no way I could present an image like that and not have a critique in my reason for making it, but there's actually no critique in the work and that is really problematic. So after that image was created for the show postcard, we spent a lot of time trying to remedy that problem. We decided that for the show description on the back of the postcard we would print, "A play about white people in love." Initially I was really against using that image as the cover art for the book since it is not presented in the same context. I couldn't think of a good alternative though, and since the image is so striking we went with it, but I would never in a million years defend it.
TM: You scrapped a year's worth of work on The Shipment, your play about Black identity in America, because you said it provoked the wrong kind of laughter. What is the wrong kind of laughter?
YJL: People got so mad at me for saying that. They were like, how dare I try to police the audience's reaction? I can understand that. I shouldn't say "the wrong kind of laughter," but rather, "the kind of laughter that makes my skin crawl." It's the kind of laughter that comes out of the relief of being able to laugh at something offensive because you're a little bit frustrated about all of the political correctness out there. I feel like there's been a P.C. backlash where people do all of these racially offensive things but say, "Of course it's a critique of racism because I'm me and I'm not a racist." Basically, this is the same issue I had with the cover art. That was something we definitely wanted to avoid with The Shipment.
TM: Both of your parents are Evangelical Christians, but you decided at a very young age that religion was not really for you. How do they feel about your work, specifically Church, your play that deals with religion?
YJL: I think my dad kind of gets my work, but my mom has been really traumatized by everything of mine that she's seen, especially Songs. They could never see The Shipment. I think that would be even too much for my dad. I basically wrote Church for my mom. It's the only show I've ever done where there's no swearing in it and both of my parents liked that show a lot.