Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die

13P and Young Jean Lee's
We're Gonna Die

Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die (StageGrade here) is a pretty straightforward offering: the playwright stands with a microphone in front of the audience. She tells us that she wants to share with us the things that comfort her when the pain is so bad she has trouble falling asleep, and for the next hour, with the band Future Wife, do exactly that: telling stories and then singing the lessons she's learned.

Before getting into the play itself, I want to say a bit about 13P. 13P is a union of 13 playwrights who decided to produce their own work themselves. As each playwright has their turn, they are artistic director of the company for that production period. When they are done, the company is done.

I love just about everything about 13P. Firstly, never once does 13P say anything about promoting female playwrights, but the fact is undeniable that it's 11 women and 2 men. Also, the playwrights of the group who are most prominent -- Sarah Ruhl being the one I consider most prominent, seeing as she was nominated for a Pulitzer -- are female, and they definitely bring other female playwrights into the consciousness. To those who say that maybe there just aren't enough female playwrights (insert Wasserstein Prize grumble here), 13P is a slap in the face.

Secondly, it touches on another big subject of today -- playwrights taking ownership of their work, producing it themselves. Their mantra, proudly displayed on the website, is "We don't develop plays. We do them." That's what it's about.

Thirdly, some people think the future of sustainability in the arts involves having limited-term non-profits with fixed, achievable missions that wind down when they're done. The New York Times covered this idea briefly, and it's in 20under40. 13P is a perfect example of a situation in which this is appropriate and effective. Here, it adds urgency to the work and allows each of the playwrights to commit to a something defined, rather than forming some sort of esoteric "company" and having to negotiate what that is.

Sorry! This is a Young Jean Lee review and I haven't mentioned Young Jean Lee until the second section! Bad reviewer, bad!

Anyways. Young Jean Lee's show puts me in mind of the last show I saw, Qui Nguyen's Agent G. At the core, they both spring from the same place: a playwright is struggling with something emotional and important, and therefore decides to put themselves at the center of their own work. They are their subjects.

The subject for Young Jean Lee, as mentioned above, is comfort in the face of terrible tragedy. Whether it's her uncle's existential pain at being alone, her father's undignified death in the face of cancer, or her own traumas small and large, it basically roots down to one idea: we're not special, the protagonists in a story who are protected from harm. Sometimes, as the pithy slogan goes, bad things happen to bad people.

But Young Jean Lee's performance is completely outwardly focused. She is here to share, so she tells stories in a quick and direct way, broken up by the musical numbers put together with the band Future Wife. She wastes no time, doesn't pull any tricks. She has a goal, and she accomplishes it.

I'm not sure whether I would call what happened a piece of theater; the distinction is largely moot. It's really more like a concept concert -- songs that are thematically linked through related stories on a single theme.

Considering the topic (which is one I think about a lot) and the directness of the show, I was hoping to be more affected than I was. I appreciated everything Young Jean Lee had to say, and I liked the music, but I wasn't hugely moved.

Part of this has to do with the venue, no doubt. I dislike Joe's Pub. It's a personal thing; I feel like the way the seating is set up makes it hard in many places to see what's going on, and (not being a drinker) the pressure made by the waitresses to drink (I eventually got flat water with no ice, and was charged for it) makes me irritated. For those who do decide to drink the overpriced alcohol, perhaps it is more worth it. I am not against the idea of combining the bar and the theater venue, but the implementation at Joe's Pub just feels alienating. I think Galapagos Arts Space does it better.

So apart from craning my neck to try and see Young Jean Lee, why wasn't I enthralled? Partly, I felt that Young Jean Lee was trying to make it too easy for me. She put forward very painful, very traumatic events, and then defused them one by one with a song that contained some advice that was helpful, but not necessarily comforting.

In a way, it felt like the moment at the end of a children's show where the motherly figure explains to the child the little life lesson that the child needed to hear, and then sings a song about it.

There's a lot I like about simplicity. I don't object to the simplicity of the form -- the simple form of storytelling and the occasional musical number was just right for the issues at hand, although it was great when that got broken up for just a little bit when Faye Driscoll's choreography got the band doing wacky dancing together.

It simply felt to a certain extent as though the issues themselves had been a little simplified; too much had been solved too quickly.

The great thing about The Orange Hats project I work on, though, is that it forces me to literally come face to face with the audience response. And although at the time I was wanting more from Young Jean Lee, talking with the audience -- most of whom were not theatermakers -- I realized that I was taking for granted the most important part of the evening.

Young Jean Lee's work was incredibly brave, honest, and straightforward. She tackled that simple fact -- We're Gonna Die -- in a way that wasn't overly sentimental, over-artistic, or anything. She tackled something difficult and communicated it well to her audience.

Whenever I interview people for the Orange Hats, I try to ask the question, "What about the show is memorable, that will stick out when you look back on it later?" In a way, I'm trying to get at the question, "Did this show change you; did it give you something, however small, that you'll look back on."

The answer for this show is a strong affirmative. The simple gifts that Young Jean Lee shared are very important, whether we haven't heard them before or whether it bears reminding. And the idea that instead of over-dramatizing our tragedy to give them the proper emotional significance, we should tackle them practically, is exactly right.

So yes, I left the show hungry for more. Considering the deep black hole in the bottom of my soul that the phrase "We're gonna die" evokes, I am hungry for more to assuage it. But that's a good thing. And I want to give a sincere thanks to Young Jean Lee for sharing.