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Face Your Mortality the Fun Way: With Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die

Janelle McDermoth stars in Second Stage's new production of Lee's theatrical concert.

Janelle McDermoth in Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die at Second Stage.
(© Joan Marcus)

Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die saved me. I was coming off a really bad summer of mid-20s problems: turmoil at work, relationship gone sour, general dissatisfaction with the world. Then I saw this peculiar hour-long concert piece at Lincoln Center Theater and it turned my mind around. The summer of sadness of 2013 was terrible, but then, because of this show, it wasn't anymore. It helped me realize that what made me unhappy was just something I had to deal with. Nothing is perfect forever.

First presented in 2011 at Joe's Pub by the now-defunct playwriting collective 13P, We're Gonna Die is being revived in a much different staging by Second Stage Theater. Lee, book writer, songwriter, and original star, has handed over the reins to imaginative director and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly and captivating performer Janelle McDermoth. This new version is not for everyone, but it's a real trip that I didn't want to end.

I was worried how We're Gonna Die was going to play in 2020, particularly because I'm far more content with my lot in life now that I'm in my early 30s and therefore much more anxious about the inevitable. It did register differently for me now — whereas the original staging taught me that life is for the living, so I might as well make the most of it, this one taught me to cherish all that I have, as deeply and powerfully as I can, for as long as I can.

The cast of Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die, directed by Raja Feather Kelly.
(© Joan Marcus)

What I love most about We're Gonna Die (beyond the 55-minute running time) is how unpretentiously Lee transmits these huge, lofty ideas about the one thing we all have in common. Created in the wake of her father's passing, We're Gonna Die is about the ways we bounce back from traumas like our friends no longer wanting to play with us in the schoolyard, or learning that your husband is cheating on you, or watching a parent die. This isn't a big philosophical conversation about death: It's blunt and down-to-earth, preposterously funny, and with great songs (Lee is credited as lyricist, with compositions penned by her and Tim Simmonds, as well additional music by John-Michael Lyles).

Originally staged as a simple cabaret by director Paul Lazar, Kelly's version is more traditionally theatrical. It's set in a sterile purgatorial waiting room where a badass rock concert comes to life. (David Zinn created the stage environment, with a winding staircase and working vending machine, while Tuce Yasak designed the cool neon lighting.) As host, McDermoth is a real find, brimming with star quality and charisma. Her band — Ximone Rose (keyboard and percussion), Debbie Christine Tjong (bass), Kevin Ramessar (guitar, keyboard, and band leader), Freddy Hall (guitar), and Marques Walls (drums and percussion) — is so good that you'd willingly follow them to heaven or hell as they play on.

Look, I know that a show called We're Gonna Die is not going to be at the top of everyone's list, especially in the dog days of winter. Looking around the theater, the audience was pretty divided: Young people seemed to be having a great time. Older folks sat there puzzled and stone-faced, almost as if they were refusing to listen. If they had just done so, they would have seen that We're Gonna Die isn't about death at all. It's about valuing our lives while we still have the chance.

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