Young Jean Lee #1 Super Asian Oct 4, 2009
by Mike P
I first saw Young Jean Lee's Theater Company's Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven at On the Boards a couple seasons ago and I saw THE SHIPMENT on opening night last Thursday. It's almost impossible to not compare the two pieces I viewed; both works are "ethnic identity plays". Both were disorienting pieces that constantly had me shifting the way I was looking at the work, re-organizing what was going on onstage, settling into the uncomfortable atmosphere, and anticipating what was going to happen next. Both take bold, unflinching risks. In short, watching YJL's work is an exhilarating and engaging experience. This work is fluid, provocative, experimental, and the fearless kind of theater that everyone needs to see. An awesome way to kick off this season at OtB!
Growing up Asian in America, there was a severe lack of Asian-American playwrights in the theater to look up to. When I would read the papers or go to the bookstore, all I could find was M. Butterfly. There was some standout work by Chay Yew, and a smattering of solo performance, but generally, every Asian-American playwright would dole out the same, cliched play about new world vs. old world, blah blah blah, Joy Luck Club Part VI. Endless depictions of Asian-Americans as social misfits (liars and murderers) or as overachievers cracking under the pressures of medical school, all the while struggling to hang on to your heritage. Is that it? Is that what's really going on? It just felt like everyone was living in a bubble. The problem was the relatively young age of the Asian-American experience in America. The history just wasn't there - the playwrights had yet to surface, the plays had yet to be written. So I thought I'd just wait...
Songs of the Dragon...starts with YJL in a video getting repeatedly slapped in the face, a really amazing way to start the show. It goes on for several minutes, first in darkness, then in video. Immediately the audience must respond to this brutality. As the show progressed, the agression is still there. The show contained moments of unabashed honesty and she goes for the kill:
"Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status—Asian people from Asia are even more brain damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey."
Funny stuff that either made people laugh or cringe. I know I don't have to tell you, but I'm Asian, so believe me. It's funny, because it's true. It's something that I have thought many times, but YJL had the guts to put on stage.
The suggestion that the Asian-American experience has assimilated into white culture was clear, as exhibited in the repeated shifting and converging scenes between confronting racial stereotypes and the seemingly tangential self-indulgent dialog of a white couple that brilliantly expressed the sort of disorienting effects that may happen if you're Asian in America.
The things is, though: people, no matter the color of your skin, don't really care all that much about the Asian-American experience. Ask a person about how they feel about Asian-Americans and racism in America, and well, I think you'd generally get an indifferent response. But ask a person about African-Americans and racism in America, and people lose their cool. Or at least will sweat a little bit. Why is that?
Perhaps my viewing of Songs of the Dragon... as an Asian-American may be similar to the experience of an African-American viewing THE SHIPMENT. However, it is clear, (with a little backstory) that YJL, and many other Asian-Americans anyway, are pretty angry. I suppose this goes back to history, or lack thereof, whereas the African-American experience is deeply embedded within the culture in a very different way.
When I heard YJL was going to write a "black identity politics play", I thought that was the smartest thing I ever heard. Upping the ante for sure, I was excited to see the result. She really put herself in a position to fail, and fail miserably. She may say there's nothing worse than writing a black identity politics play, but I think there's nothing worse than writing a black identity politics play and have everyone think you're a total asshole.
Don't worry, I don't think this fails. I don't think YJL is an asshole. I think she's all kinds of genius. For me, viewing THE SHIPMENT was a transcendent experience. I had many of the same feelings I experienced while watching Songs of the Dragon...: feelings of triumph, solidarity, anger, sadness, guilt. But with THE SHIPMENT, I was surprisingly disarmed by the sincere emotion in this work. A work that is very confrontational, but rewarding. Each punch in the face comes with a moment of revelation.
With this work, most of the time there is an uncomfortable and relentless struggle within the viewer to identify "what is going on". It's that struggle that's hard to grapple with, but wherein the real experience lies. Whatever is happening on stage - a barrage of black stereotypes including a lovely opening dance number of a pseudo-minstral show, or the classic black comedy routine, or the rise and fall a rap star - sort of triggers the viewer's senses and perceptions in interesting ways.
I think with Songs of the Dragon..., I was unable to remove myself from watching the work as an Asian-American. With THE SHIPMENT, I didn't have that to hold on to. I think the only way to really create a forum about a polarizing issue or topic, especially in the theater, is to create an appropriate amount of distance between the ideas, the text, the action, and the audience. I was not surprised to hear that the first couple workshops of THE SHIPMENT didn't work because, well, they were too confrontational. People tuned out, quickly made judgments, refused to hear anymore. When it gets that intense and you don't check out, you become consumed by the work, the action, the performances...
I think that YJL took all the information from the audience's responses, coupled with her amazing and generous display of the spirit of collaboration with her performers, refined the work to build that distance - whether it was the disjointed scenarios, the highly stylized movement and speech patterns, or seemingly left-field choices - that elevates this work above the obvious, well trodden path ethnic theater has traversed for most of the 20th century. The distance allowed space for the viewer to breathe, to contemplate, to re-organize, re-align their expectations of what they were seeing, how they were seeing it, and why they reacted one way or another. It's a seriously mind-blowing effect that nothing to do with tangible objects or spectacular tricks. It's all in the masterful writing and the remarkable execution by the performers.
YJL's strong choice to juxtapose "white" indie music with the stereotypical "black" R&B and Rap sequences was done with brilliant conviction. The Modest Mouse song was an arresting moment. The Mary J. Blige song was also a great choice, as used in the entr'acte to the naturalistic drama in the second half - complete with scene change by some white dudes - disoriented the audience even more. Thinking about all the notions of black vs. white, in terms of race, social class, visual cognition, mental reasoning, decision-making, etc., was also disorienting and a very compelling part of the work.The last scene - a cocktail party in a swanky apartment - kind of reminded me of The Cosby Show, by placing the African-American experience in a stereotypically "white" environment, so the viewer must respond to their own response to the situation asking larger questions, and for me, about how representation of race can be dealt with in mainstream media predominately run by white men (tv, film, and of course, the theater.) However, in THE SHIPMENT, there is no explicit introductory acknowledgment about the race of the characters in this last scene which is what I, and I imagine other audience members, immediately questioned first. Why did I wonder if they were white, or non-white? As I was listening to the semi-universal dialog, which ranged from exposures of secrets to confessions of loneliness and despair, I remember secretly waiting for the performers to break the scene apart for the pseudo-minstrel show to begin again, and then feeling guilty about it. Much of the work is fragmentary yet amazingly palatable, due to the fact that every facet was elegantly well done.
The performers were stellar. I thank them for collaborating on this important work. At the Q and A, they had said it was difficult to cast the show - months of auditions. In my experience, it is true there is a severe lack of representation of people of color in the theater, and with a project of this scope, even harder to find the right collaborators. I am in awe of this dream cast of five. Amazing performances across the board. I, for one, am heartened and inspired to see Young Jean Lee continuing to make great work and finding her place in the theater. As a young Asian-American theater artist, Young Jean Lee is someone I look up to (even though I'm only six years behind...) and I can't wait to see what's next. And thank god, because I was sick of waiting.