Young Jean Lee presents 'Untitled Feminist Show' and 'Straight White Men'
“Utopia” is a fancy word that means asking and answering the question: what do we want to see, what do we want to happen? Young Jean Lee, a former aspiring Shakespearean scholar and, according to Chris Isherwood of The New York Times, “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation,” puts forward two responses in her plays “Untitled Feminist Show” and “Straight White Men.” Lee will be giving a lecture at 5:10 p.m. at The Michigan Theater through the Penny Stamps Lecture Series on Thursday, Jan. 21.
"Untitled Feminist Show is a carousing exploration of a world where gender is recognized and celebrated in all its fluidity and freedom, Lee described in an email interview with the Michigan Daily. Featuring six fully nude dancers whose only props are pink parasols, this hour-long, wordless show creates a space where the idea of gender becomes freedom and not constraint, stigma, marginalization or violence toward gender nonconforming people. Lee explained how the play is a space of freedom. For example, for one of the performers who does not identity either as male or female the show offers a space where “that performer can show their nude body without having to worry that people are going to assume they are female,” Lee described.
“ ‘UFS’ was about creating a utopia, and in our utopia, that freedom of identification was possible ... For me, fluidity of identity (which ‘Untitled Feminist Show’ celebrates) is an acknowledgment that we can’t shove people into categories of identity,” Lee wrote. “The show isn’t about being a women vs. being a man. It’s about showing people who were born with female-coded bodies who are able to transcend these types of gender distinctions.”
The term utopia can also pose the question: what is off about what we want to see? For Lee, “Straight White Men” was a kind of experiment in character identification and in asking the question, what should straight white men do with their privilege? As she recounts in an interview with American Theater, its beginnings stemmed from a workshop.
“When I was at Brown doing the first workshop, there was a room full of students, people of color, and queer people, a very diverse room. And then they started talking very harshly about straight white men. I said, ‘Okay. Now I know all the things you don’t like about straight white men. Why don’t you give me a list of all the things you wished straight white men would do that would make you hate them less?’”
She continued, “So they told me all these things, and I wrote down the whole list, and then I wrote that character. And they all hated him. They hated him.”
Lee, described her writing process in an interview with BOMB Magazine as “failing over and over and over and over and over and over again,” thrives when she is putting her audiences (and herself) between rocks and hard places. As she says in the same interview, “The maxim is basically I try to think of the worst idea for a show I could possibly think of.”
It’s easy to see how a show like “Straight White Men” fits the bill, which features four straight white men (three sons and a father) whose gathering around Christmas is the launchboard for exploring straight white masculinity. (For the straight white male readers, have you ever thought about how you won’t go to get a sweater even when it’s too cold for the t-shirt you’re wearing? That’s one question that one scene examines, as Lee and the cast describe in this video interview.) Their identity comes under scrutiny as Lee loosens straight white male identity as the “default position,” she said in a video interview with Public Theater NY.
“I asked myself, ‘If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight white man, what would I do?’ ” Lee wrote. “That’s where the existential crisis came up for me, because it would be one thing if I woke up as a straight, white man who never thought about his identity and enjoyed his privilege unthinkingly — that might feel kind of good. But if I were to wake up with my own mind in a straight, white body, it would be completely problematic.”
Lee’s theatrical diptych approaches questions about identity from two directions. What if you were stuck in this identity that isn’t yours, whose privilege comes at the expense of violence toward everyone else? What if you had absolute freedom in your identity? Lee, who regularly voices her dislike of preachy, didactically political theater, has put forward two works that, though written separately, are an innovative venue for engaging with questions of identity. These are questions that are essential and uncomfortable for Lee, who describes growing up Korean-American in a predominantly white community where she was forced to deny her ethnic heritage.
“I think that they are both looking toward the future — ‘SWM’ looks toward a future that might be imminent, and ‘UFS’ a future that may never come,” Lee wrote. “They both point to a world where we define people in different ways than we have in the past.”
Lee will be giving a lecture at 5:10 p.m. at The Michigan Theater through the Penny Stamps Lecture Series on Thursday, Jan. 21.