Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee makes Broadway history
“My audience tends to be predominantly white and quite resistant to identity politics,” Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee told the Women’s Media Center. “So I’m always trying to trick them into getting interested and seeing different perspectives, usually through humor.”
Lee will be making history this summer as the first Asian American woman playwright to have a play appear on Broadway when her new work, Straight White Men, produced by Second Stage Theater, opens at the Helen Hayes Theater on June 29. She will be one of nine contemporary playwrights commissioned by Second Stage to create new works to be produced on Broadway starting March 2018. These playwrights are a diverse group including seven women, three African Americans, and Lee as the sole Asian American.
“Young Jean Lee’s work is a breakthrough for any playwright — that is the dream, a show on Broadway,” said Erin Quill, an actress, writer, and singer who was in the original Broadway cast of Avenue Q and who blogs about Asian Americans in theater at The Fairy Princess Diaries. “Add to that the obvious obstacles, and it becomes more impressive an achievement. What strikes me about her career is the tenacity and drive she had to form her own company and self-produce her work, and that she refused to accept or be hindered by the status quo.”
The status quo for Asian Americans in theater is not one of overwhelming representation. The most recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) report, “Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages,” described the 2015-2016 season as a time of increasing minority representation, with 35 percent of roles on Broadway portrayed by actors of color and actors with disabilities. However, Asian Americans were the only minority group whose representation on stage decreased.
On the surface, Straight White Men appears to be a conventional family drama, set on Christmas Eve with a traditional three-act format and natural narrative style. Three adult sons come home to spend Christmas with their recently widowed father, but between the Chinese take-out food and the brotherly pranks and their late mom’s doctored Monopoly game, “Privilege,” this family of straight white men who are educated and aware confront uncomfortable issues of identity, privilege, and what it means to be a straight white man today.
“When the play first premiered [off-Broadway in 2014], a lot of people were baffled as to why I would be examining straight white men as an identity group rather than according them their usual status as the ‘default humans.’” said Lee. “Now I think people are much more aware of straight white men as an identity group.”
Lee’s plays explore issues of race, gender, and identity — often from perspectives other than her own. With a lot of research and working collaboratively with others, Lee has created works such as The Shipment; which looks at African American identity set against minstrel traditions and stereotypical expectations; Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which takes on Korean American identity contrasted with a white love story; and Untitled Feminist Show, which wordlessly and nakedly examines women’s power.
However, in today’s political climate, an examination of straight white men from the point of view of “the other” seems both timely and bold.
“I think that in the current climate there are people who resent any representation of straight white men whatsoever and think I should be writing solely about people from marginalized groups,” said Lee. “But I think it’s useful to write about straight white men from a non-straight-white-male perspective. Writing about straight white men was a challenge because most straight white men don’t spend a lot of time thinking about being straight white men, especially if they’re middle-aged or older. Unlike people from other identity groups, they haven’t been constantly forced all their lives to be aware of the fact that they’re straight white men and what that means. But that’s slowly starting to change, especially with the younger generations.”
For these hard questions, theater presents a different kind of opportunity for audience members than that offered by film and television.
“To me the biggest thing that distinguishes theater from film and television is that the performers and audience are in the same room, aware of each other’s reactions and feeding off each other’s energy,” said Lee. “Also, in theater you can break the fourth wall and confront the audience directly. Audience members don’t feel as safe and distanced.”
Although Lee is the first Asian American woman playwright on Broadway, she will probably not be the only one for long.
“There’s been a relative explosion of Asian American talent in theater in recent years,” said Lee. “I’ve noticed that when I teach a theater class, a ton of Asian American students and [other] students of color tend to show up, especially women. I think the more Asian Americans are out there making work and teaching, the more the younger generations will be encouraged to enter the field.”
Lee is currently working on a play commission for Broadway for Center Theatre Group and Second Stage Theater. She is also teaching playwriting at Stanford and Yale, as well as working on her first full-length film.
Quill is encouraged by Lee’s Straight White Men coming to Broadway; she points out that showcasing more diverse perspectives can help other people of color in theater.
“It is a great ‘win’ to have a point of view like hers on Broadway,” said Quill. “That she has ‘lent’ it to, well, straight white men as a vehicle means that this piece will have far greater impact. Her writing continues to demand exploration of the conversation about equality, sexism, and open-mindedness — I just hope Broadway audiences embrace it as much as it has been off-Broadway and around the world.”
Note: Young Jean Lee was interviewed on “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” in the episode that originally aired on January 21, 2018. “WMC Live” is available by podcast at wmclive.com and at iTunes.
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