Young Jean Lee on Her Lear

01/20/2010 5:45 AM |

The L: Do you feel like Lear is reflecting on a specific cultural phenomenon?
YJL: I think there's a lot of possible interpretations. The one that I had in mind when I was writing was the phenomenon of being an adult and having a parent get sick and realizing their mortality and then realizing your own mortality. In the first half of the play a lot of those themes get played out, most obviously with the rejection of the father, but also with the obsession with getting fat or bald, and just the idea of being incapable of love, love of others or self-love. The first half of the play contains a lot of themes that are in all of my work, which are the tendencies of myself and my demographic.

The L: What do you mean by that: "yourself and your demographic"?
YJL: I've done shows all over the U.S. and Europe and everywhere I go I feel like my audience is kind of similar… college educated, kind of artsy, more on the liberal side, probably not super religious, and if not middle-class by income then middle-class culturally. And that's definitely where I am. I just feel like we get locked into these patterns of thought and belief and I'm always wanting to depict that, to depict the claustrophobia of that, and try to break it apart somehow.

The L: A lot of your work also deals with identity, particularly our expectations given a certain identity, whether it be a white evangelist or black rapper. And again, you work to subvert those expectations somehow. One of the things I'm curious about is how you identify yourself, which I know can be a complicated question. Do you identify yourself as Asian-American, as American, as a female playwright…
YJL: Yeah, all of the above, and I identify very strongly with what I keep referring to as my demographic.

The L: Why do you think you write about identity so often in your work?
YJL: I don't know. I don't really think about identity in my work. I don't really think in terms of identity. So it's hard for me to answer that question.

The L: Do you even see it as writing about identity?
YJL: Well, The Shipment was definitely writing about identity, but it was weird. I wasn't interested in that because I was interested in issues of identity because it wasn't my identity. I was kind of mad about people's attitudes towards racism against black people in America and the after-effects of slavery. I wanted to respond to that in some way. And then for the actors, they, as black performers, had a lot of issues with identity, so it became sort of about identity.

The L: I feel like in some sense Church was also about identity.
YJL: It totally was, but it wasn't coming from a place—I don't know, for some reason I don't think the word "identity" ever enters my mind. With Church I was getting annoyed because whenever the word "Christians" would come up everybody would be like, "Oh, they're just so evil." I guess I don't like stereotyping. Maybe that's a way to put it—I have issues with identity when it's used for the purpose of stereotyping because that is linked to complacency. To say that an entire group of people is one way is really, I think, kind of terrible. I don't like dismissiveness. I am dismissive of dismissiveness. [Laughter.]

The L: Just to stay on that for another minute. There's been a lot of talk in the past year or so about the lack of opportunities for women in the theater and very rarely on the front of that debate is any discussion about the representation of minorities in theater. Lately there's been some headlines on the subject, with the New York Theater Workshop's choice not to cast a deaf actor in the leading role, a deaf character, in Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; and then a bit earlier when Lincoln Center used a white director for the revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. You started your own theater company, so you skipped past a lot of the problem of getting your work produced, but do you feel like you have ever been excluded because of your gender or your ethnicity?
YJL: I feel like in my case it's only helped me. Whenever I write about identity politics everybody really loves it, so I think in my case it's most helped. But it's probably hurt as well, in ways that I'm not aware of. I don't tend to be super sensitive to that stuff. And it's experimental theater—my demographic is pretty liberal, people don't wear their racism on their sleeves. I definitely think it's an issue, a really serious issue, but I've just sort of managed to avoid a lot of it, I think.