Playwright Young Jean Lee recently spoke with Agenda Magazine’s Michaël Bellon on her creation process, the conquering model of human existence, and taking responsibility for personal and cultural identity. Lee’s MAP 2013 project Straight White Men, an examination of the values of our neoliberal society and our struggle with all possible forms of identity, is at Brussel’s Kaaitheater from October 15 – 17. Read on for an excerpt from the full interview.
Bellon: In earlier interviews, you said that before you start writing a play you ask yourself what the last kind of play would be that you would ever think about writing. Why has that proven to be a good strategy to produce the plays that brought you success?
Lee: When I was first starting out as a playwright, I wanted to write the sort of plays that I admired. So I ended up imitating plays written by other people. But then I took an experimental playwriting class with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College, who asked me to write the worst sort of play I could think of. That automatically made me go against all the trends and whatever everybody else was doing. It became the right shortcut for me. Some people are naturally rebellious. I don’t know if I am, but this way of working kind of forces me to be.
Bellon: How does a play about straight white men fit into that strategy. You didn’t have much affinity with them at all?
Lee: To be honest? No. It was also scary for me when I made The Shipment with an all black cast and I dealt with racial identity, but artistically it was very interesting. Sitting around the table with an all white male cast talking about white male identity is much more difficult. Because straight white men don’t spend their whole life thinking about their identity. If they think about something it is about their human identity. And there is not much sympathy for that. In my little world in New York there is much more interest in themes like diversity, ethnicity, and gender.
To prepare, I interviewed a lot of straight white men with different backgrounds. Being not only an Asian female but also an only child, I did not even know to what extent straight white men in the presence of a woman are very different from straight white men without a woman around. And straight white men in the company of their brothers are a totally different thing altogether. We did a lot of improvisations in which the cast would just enact potential scenes so that I could see what their behaviour was like. And in the beginning I was just not willing to believe it. I said there is no way that grown men would behave this childishly. But everybody swore it was true, and since we produced the play not a single person with siblings has said that what we show is unrealistic.