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We're Gonna Die

Young Jean Lee's often beguiling new cabaret piece at Joe's Pub shows off the playwright's talents as a singer and songwriter. logo
Young Jean Lee and Future Wife in We're Gonna Die
(© Blaine Davis)
One thing it's safe to say about Young Jean Lee: she does not like to play it safe. If she's not deconstructing King Lear without its title character, the rising young Korean-American playwright is audaciously writing a play about living as a black American or deconstructing, with utter sincerity, an evangelical worship service. Now in her often beguiling new cabaret piece, We're Gonna Die at Joe's Pub, Lee takes on the challenges of singing and songwriting.

She performs along with Future Wife, a charming, post-folk rock band that she formed with her boyfriend, Tim Simmonds, in the piece, which is confidently directed by downtown veteran Paul Lazar. The work seems to have been largely inspired by the death of the playwright's father, an event that pervaded the script for her previous piece, Lear, as well. Her search for solace following that devastating loss led her on a quest for great, earth-shattering revelations. What she found instead, she tells us, were "simple common-sense things that have somehow managed to give me comfort."

Hence we have a series of original songs, written by Lee, ranging from a soothing melody called "Lullaby for the Miserable" to a punked-up piece titled "When You Get Old," in which she declares, "When you get old, you will lose your mind! And everything will hurt all the time." Believe it or not, that's an oddly comforting lesson in the hands of this singular artist.

Lee makes no effort to be anyone other than who she is: a slightly awkward, unpretentious performer whose occasional lack of precision merely reinforces her message that this could be any of us up there reciting those same words. She delivers the tune that gives the show its title with a genuine, down-to-earth smile as if she's telling us to have a nice day: "I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die someday, then I'll be gone, and it will be okay."

That number is punctuated by a delightfully geeky, life-affirming moment in which all five members of the band suddenly launch into a series of post-modern dance moves (courtesy of the Bessie Award-winning choreographer Faye Driscoll).

Lee's compositions are occasionally derivative -- I heard familiar snippets from a couple of musical theater and gospel tunes -- but they're winning, nevertheless. They're all placed comfortably within the performer's limited vocal range and she sells them convincingly. In a couple of numbers, her more vocally trained fellow musicians sing harmonies that are so lovely and tight that one may be surprised they don't provide more backup. But somehow that would have probably been too safe a route for this fearless artist to tread.

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