A couple of weeks ago, playwright-director Young Jean Lee brought her wickedly irreverent meta-ethnic-heritage drama, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, to Braunschweig, Germany for the Theaterformen festival (my TONY review of the original NYC production is here). The good people at Theaterformen asked me to write an essay on Songs. I jumped at the chance to write at length about an artist I enjoy mightily. They translated it and ran it in the program. Here's what I look like in German.
Very cool, no? I think I read much more intelligently auf Deutsch. For those of you unfamiliar with the tongue of Schiller, Goethe or Brecht, here's the English version.
A race riot in the theater
Young Jean Lee explodes American racial stereotypes in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. By David Cote
If Young Jean Lee’s aesthetic strategy could be summarized in a tidy phrase, it might be: Perversity plus sincerity. By her own admission, the 32-year-old playwright forces herself to create plays she would hate to write. That has meant composing an orientalist film-noir scenario (2003’s Metaphysic of Morals); a period drama about William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley (2004’s The Appeal); a self-help play about the secret to happiness (2005’s Pullman, WA); and now, in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, an identity-politics play. Lee studies the genre conventions in plays and novels, and imitates them—but up to a point. The stylistic ventriloquism inevitably breaks down as the author’s disgust, embarrassment and humor flood the text like a virus. This is where the deeply personal aspect of Lee’s aesthetic comes in: Her drama morphs from satire and parody to confessional nakedness. Then, inevitably, the play will snap back into vicious lampoon. So Lee establishes a crucial tension between her intellectual disdain for the subject and a tendency toward self-laceration.
She describes her writing tactic as one of “reversal and contradiction,” meaning that any statement a character makes about self or the world can be undermined or annihilated in the next sentence. This creates a jerky, schizoid spontaneity to the work, as if we were watching the author’s exposed id on stage: hesitant, playful, quirky, quizzical and raging. Especially raging. Lee is unequivocal about the deep reserves of anger she can muster—both toward blithely racist whites and guilt-mongering minorities. “Oh, I hate everybody,” she remarks during an interview at a downtown café in January 2007.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is Lee’s “identity-politics” play. In a series of fractured, presentational scenes, she depicts a trio of Korean characters—designated as Korean 1, 2 and 3—interacting with Korean-American, presumably a stand-in for the author. Their interactions shift constantly in a series of role-playing and power-shifting games that verge on sadomasochism. At first, the Korean-American fires off a volley of racist poison. She mocks Asians as “monkeys,” “retarded” and “too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status.” Then she turns on the audience, taunting them as racists and alluding to her rage and making childish threats to enslave whites under the Korean yoke. Then, three Korean women enter in traditional dress, essentially “performing” their “Asian-ness.” They giggle, gossip, address each other with faux-Asian names and adopt an openly hostile attitude toward the equally belligerent Korean-American. A ridiculous, cartoonish fight breaks out. The only other characters are known simply as White Person 1 and 2. Aliens to the meta-minstrelsy happening on stage, these two seem to have been imported from the standard bourgeois relationship drama, a tired but recurrent genre in America. We laugh at their earnest, banal discussion of personal problems. The joke, however, is on the Koreans: By the end of the play, the whites—consumed with the minutia of their emotional lives—will take over the action.
“I wanted a dysfunctional couple to fuck up the identity-politics play,” Lee explains. “It was an experiment. I always knew that White Person 1 and 2 would eat the play the minute they showed up. Only white spectators hated it. They had this misperception that the white couple was supposed to be typically white—which they’re not. Every person of color who has seen the show has known that you could switch that couple with any ethnicity and it would make just as much sense.”
The American drama has always been the race drama; for decades, playwrights have understood the theatricality of race, and that our culture is built both on the segregation and exploitation of minorities, principally for labor, but also that it is a product of intermingled ethnic folkways. In the early days of Broadway, blackface minstrel shows were standard repertory. Eugene O’Neill tried to weld ethnic melodrama to Expressionism in The Emperor Jones (1920). There have been several tragic and comical views of race in popular American plays: Abie’s Irish Rose, Raisin in the Sun, Blues for Mister Charlie, Flower Drum Song. In recent years, race has been the prime subject for several major dramatists, such as August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and David Henry Hwang. The clichés that have grown up around the genre include generational rifts; the crisis of assimilation; and, of course, the ingrained racism of the adopted culture. The genre is as American as apple pie, jazz and baseball.
The concept of assimilation is vividly symbolized in an early story that the Korean-American tells the audience. Her grandmother, she remembers, has a recipe for stuffed fried tofu that involves heating up tofu and oil in a pan, and at the last minute throwing in a handful of live mudfish (akin to sardines). Because the skillet is scalding hot with oil, the fish burrow into the tofu to escape, but they die there anyway. Voila—stuffed tofu. Could Lee have come up with a better way to describe cultural assimilation? Put a person in an environment where racism is intense and pervasive and soon enough, like mudfish, they too will burrow into the culture to escape the heat.
Mind you, this is just the product of an overactive critical imagination. Lee says she included the story for its exotic grotesqueness. “I got the story out of a Korean cookbook written by a white guy,” she says. “It just cracked me up. It was so gruesome. The point of it is that whole cliché of telling stories about your grandmother in identity-politics narratives. The Korean-American character is telling this story and it has to do with cooking. It’s very Amy Tan, very Joy Luck Club. I have no idea if this recipe is genuine, since the book was written by a white guy. Maybe some old Korean woman lied to him.”
The flip side to Lee’s mocking hipster tone is her masochistic streak. Songs of the Dragons opens with a video of Lee being slapped repeatedly across the face. The blows are real; Lee endured an actual beating. She described the semi-comical video shoot: an entourage of concerned friends stood off-camera armed with aspirin and a bag of frozen pees, to offer emergency medical aid. “I went into shock, which you can see on the video,” Lee remarks. “I’m just trying to keep my head up and stay focused, but you watch me losing it. I could barely feel [her friend] hitting me by the end.” What, exactly, would drive Lee to such extremes of self-abuse? “I was feeling really depressed and dating a lot of assholes,” she responds blankly.
Songs of the Dragons was rehearsed over a three-month period in the summer of 2006, with Lee bringing in scenes piece by piece, working on movement and choreography with Dean Moss (formerly of NYC performance space, The Kitchen) and consulting with set designer Eric Dyer (a member of the Brooklyn performance group Radiohole). While her approach is basically that of the auteur, Lee gives credit to her collaborators for helping flesh out her vision. What’s more, she describes the creative process as stressful. “Professionally, I’m the most confident person you’ll ever meet,” she says. “I’ve never had a moment of doubt about my career or where I’m going. But personally and artistically, it’s the reverse. Making a show is almost torture. You need such a high level of belief in yourself. So for me, it’s a constant struggle to not give up.”
Lee expresses both professional pride and personal ambivalence about the reception to Songs of the Dragons in the United States. On the one hand, the work has attracted attention from the European festival circuit and she is, for the moment, being subsidized by the commission money. But Lee says that her peers in the downtown theater world have been openly envious—even contemptuous. “I’ve had people tell me to my face that the only reason I’m getting this attention is because I’m Asian,” Lee says.
While she was rehearsing her show in New York, Lee recalls people felt they were permitted to make off-color Asian jokes, as a weird way of ingratiating themselves with her. “I do not encourage that sort of humor,” Lee says, making it clear that being racist and being a racist “ironically” is basically the same thing.
“It’s only downtown artists who do it,” Lee says. “And they’re incredibly defensive about it—as if anything they did could ever be construed as racist. For example, the impression I get of the Wooster Group is that they became incredibly angry whenever anyone accused them of racism, because of the blackface in their shows. That’s where the line in my play comes from: ‘Go to hell, you unfashionably angry minorities. This is my sophisticated critique of racism that you are too stupid to understand.’ That’s pretty much the party line of downtown theater artists. There’s an incredibly high level of racial entitlement. Since artists make a distinction between themselves and yuppies, they think they have a kind of racial immunity. That they’re coming from a place of total moral and political purity. Actually, I just think they’re a bunch of racists.”
Lee is the latest in a line of American avant-gardists whose work is partly made possible by the money and attention of European presenters. Like the Wooster Group, the Builders Association, Radiohole, Richard Foreman, Richard Maxwell and, naturally, Robert Wilson, Lee has acquired an international profile. It’s a dirty little secret of American theater that its most daring artists are subsidized by Europe. In fact, by attending Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, you are helping to sustain the American avant-garde.
Who knows if things will ever get better? Even in New York City, the cultural commissars are hostile to experimental theater, especially work as likely to confound and provoke as Lee’s. The nonprofit theater scene is deeply conservative and afraid to alienate its audience. And funding for the theatrical avant-garde is practically nonexistent. Despite the critical success of her work and her growing reputation, Lee is aware of the systemic limitations she faces. “If you want to have a play produced professionally, you need to write something that’s basically at the same level as a television movie,” Lee says. “But then, you have to cover it in what I call a special sauce of pretension. The pretension comes from heightened language, or maybe an abstract set. People want a reason to see a play rather than sit around at home. So you have to make them feel like they’re at a cultural event that is deeper or more significant than HBO.”
Ironically, if Lee’s success continues, we may lose her articulate fury and heartbreaking ambivalence to the very media that have corrupted American theater. Film and television offers are starting to come her way.