Young Jean Lee wants to banish Disney from America's stages. The result is exciting and unnerving, writes Ariel Ramchandani ...
Special to More Intelligent Life Last spring Young Jean Lee, an American playwright and director, spoke plainly on the state of American theatre to the Nation. She described it as "our most backward art form", continuing:
It's so expensive now—tickets are $50 to $100, so most of the audience members are over 50 and middle class and white. Because there's so little money in it and it's just gotten less and less popular every year, the really talented writers are going to Hollywood. Theater just can't keep them, so the quality of writing is lower... It's really embarrassing. When European presenters come to New York, they don't go to see anything that's on Broadway or Off Broadway. It's like going to Disney World: the art-world equivalent of Norman Rockwell.”
She has a point. Her verdict on the middling fare peddled on the Great White Way came to mind after I saw "Fela!", the current jewel in the recession-tarnished Broadway crown. The story of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian political activist who founded the afrobeat sound, the musical seemed to promise a cure for what ails Broadway: a different cultural tradition, a contentious subject, a younger and more diverse audience. I had been looking forward to it. But for all its rump-shaking, hand-clapping goodness, "Fela!" failed me. Though exuberant and entertaining, it felt too simplistic, too superficial—dare I say, too Disney? Its portrayal of the Black Power movement lacked nuance, and the show glossed over anything controversial in Kuti's life, including his harem of wives (all nameless in the musical). In other words, “Fela!” maintains the sanitised, status-quo version of African otherness already in “The Lion King", with a hint of sexism that, as Charles Isherwood pointed out, borders on minstrelsy. If this is progress, then things on Broadway are indeed looking grim. Young Jean Lee is no Rockwell. She understands and exploits the unique strengths of her medium: the ability to viscerally connect with an audience. She tends to cast her experimental and provocative plays before writing them, using the stage as a laboratory for feelings of yearning and unease. "The Shipment", her critically acclaimed play from 2009, opens with a black comedian yelling "New York mothafuckin’ City!” Then, like a parody of a Dave Chapelle parody, this character proceeds to make fun of white people. The rest of the play is a knowing minstrel show of sorts, with a dance number and a rags-to-riches ghetto story. It culminates in a drawing-room drama, which delivers a sinister gut-punch on racism and the idea of "black-face". The play is eclectic, eccentric and powerful. Lee wrote "The Shipment" with her all-black cast during workshops and rehearsals over two years. "The cast really wanted to address some of the stereotypes that they’re repeatedly asked to play in auditions, and the minstrel show was the best way we could think of to do that," she told me in an interview last year. "We tried to make everything off-kilter and unrecognisable so the audience got really nervous and wasn’t sure how to react." Lee followed the success of "The Shipment" with "Lear", which premiered this year at Soho Rep in New York. In this play, very loosely inspired by Shakespeare's original, Lee's exploratory, collaborative writing process eliminated the titular king. Instead the focus is on the younger generation: Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Edgar and Edmund. Having left their parents in the storm, they spend the play grappling with their actions and their loss, safe and warm in the their grand and ostentatiously regal red room. (The set, designed by David Evans Morris is an over-the-top wonder.) They make a comically horrible bunch. Not even the lovely Cordelia is saved from narcissism and body obsession. These siblings bicker, struggle for power, insult each other ("everyone looks fat. Regan looks fat, you look fat..."), justify their bad behaviour and spew nonsensical psycho-babble. The first act ends abruptly in violence, followed by a breakdown of the fourth wall: Edgar, quoting the original, asks the audience if they are living life to the fullest. Then Edmund comes on stage dressed in a big bird costume to re-enact a Sesame Street episode. This absurdist take on "King Lear" by a young theatrical darling lured enough ticket buyers to warrant two extensions, but also earned some insults—a “mostly flailing attempt to excavate new meanings from the consideration of a celebrated text” huffed the New York Times. But Lee doesn't seem interested in excavating Shakespeare. Rather, she uses his play as a launch-pad. Freed from the confines of the original, these loaded characters become tools for considering loss. Lee draws on Shakespeare's approach to vibrating anger, mortality and speech to explore a more modern, more primal take on losing a parent. "Lear" lacks a clear format or arc. At times it can feel like Lee is taking advantage of her audience, as if we should be willing to accept whatever she puts in front of us, regardless of just how weird, confusing or boring it is. Still, I found "Lear" to be a very exciting play. Lee's way of subverting expectations leaves us questioning our own latent assumptions and desires about theatre, race, death and entertainment. The effect is thrilling and discomfiting. "The Korean-born playwright wants nothing less, it seems, than to remake the American theatre in her image," wrote Hilton Als in his mixed review of "Lear". He was referring to Lee's habit of populating her plays with women and people of colour, but he was also hinting at her willingness to shun precedent. Lee is not so afraid of Shakespeare that Lear's descendants can't be black women and onstage for most of the time (a detail I found myself marvelling at, only to feel awkward about noticing such a novelty). Lee is now at work on a film project, her playwrights' collective, 13p just received a grant, and "The Shipment" is now on a world tour. This is all good news. I saw "Lear" in a theatre in Chinatown some weeks ago and I am still haunted by it. I am eager for her next experiment. "The Shipment" is on a world tour; the next stop is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago from March 26th to 28th (Ariel Ramchandani is a contributing editor to More Intelligent Life.) Picture Credit: Blaine Davis, Paula Court