Playwright Young Jean Lee wants to brutalize you. She wants to get in your face and make you, the audience, squirm, so that you leave the theater questioning not just what you've seen but your very existence.
"The agenda is to create a trap — for the audience and myself, so that we can't get out of whatever problem the play is wrestling with," says Lee, whose "Straight White Men" will have its West Coast premiere Sunday at the Centre Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. "I'm trying to make work people can't so easily dismiss."
The instinct to rattle is somewhat counterintuitive for Lee, who says as an artist, she's "a total pleaser." But leaping out of her comfort zone would not be out of character for the Korean-born, New York-based artist. Lee is nothing if not ever-evolving.
Lee, 41, came out of New York's downtown avant-garde theater scene. Her work, which tackles identity politics and detonates cultural stereotypes — of Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, feminists and Caucasian men — is provocative. She brazenly toggles among genres. Over a decade, each new work has been a reinvention in form. "Straight White Men," Lee's 10th work, falls along a trajectory that includes an ensemble show of naked mimes, a solo cabaret show and an absurdist historical drama about the English Romantic poets.
Given that versatility, Lee is more a nimble and daring theater artist than a playwright, one who alternately wears the hats of performer, writer, director and producer. When her hipster cabaret "We're Gonna Die" played at the Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation in Culver City in 2013, Times theater critic Charles McNulty called Lee "one of New York's most exciting experimental playwrights." Last year, the New Yorker said Lee was "a troubling, necessary presence" in American theater.
"She's a true innovator, both in the subversiveness of what she tackles and how, aesthetically, her work is always changing," says Center Theatre Group associate artistic director Diane Rodriguez. "Whether it's a feminist project with no words, a nonlinear 'Lear,' three long sketches put together, she takes big risks — huge, jumping-off-building risks. It doesn't always work, but big swaths of it do. And the work is always fearless."
"Straight White Men," written and directed by Lee and produced by her Young Jean Lee's Theater Company, may be the straightest work she has created in the sense that it follows "a linear, naturalistic structure," she says. The play was co-commissioned by Center Theatre Group and premiered in spring 2014 at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. It went on to tour Europe, including stops at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz, Austria. The L.A. production, co-presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, is its first U.S. staging since its New York premiere at the Public Theater last year.
The play is a Christmas story and a father-son drama rolled into one. It's set in the cozy Midwestern living room of a liberal-leaning, widowed father, played by Richard Riehle. He gathers for the holiday with his three sons — a writer-professor (Frank Boyd), a banker (Gary Wilmes) and his eldest, Matt, (Brian Slaten), a PhD dropout who has lost his way and is living at home because of his student debt burden. Over three languorous days of present-swapping, Chinese takeout and board games, the characters explore the play's central question: How can these four individuals lead a moral life given the privilege they share as straight white men?
"It's the question of, 'What do we want straight white men to do that they're not doing? And what happens when they do that?'" says Lee, who grew up in Pullman, Wash. "It's a very current question. Because being a straight white man is a relatively new thing, historically. For years, they got to be the default human. And now, suddenly, they're being slapped with labels, and they hate it. So it's sort of approaching a timeless question from a slightly different perspective."
Another issue, Lee adds, is: "To what extent am I implicated in that question as a straight white man? So then it becomes an even bigger question of: What do we want people to do? What are our values in society? And I think that's what the play ended up being about."
Following a more traditional narrative structure in "Straight White Men" felt almost daring to Lee. But reinvention with a purpose has been an artistic way of life for her.
"Every show has a little bit of the quality of an artist's first show," Lee says of her work. "There's something really cool about young artists who don't know what they're doing yet. And I feel like reinventing yourself, genre wise, gives the work that thing that comes from someone doing something for the first time, discovering it."
Within her nonprofit theater company — it has just one full-time employee and a few part-time associates — Lee is able to impart a singular vision, not unlike a choreographer within a dance company or an indie film auteur.
Working like a cultural anthropologist, as she refers to it, Lee starts with a question she wants to explore. She then gathers an ensemble of performers she wants to work with, conducting interviews with them and others for fodder. In some cases, she does improv exercises with the actors. Only then does she start to write the work.
The upshot is a rare degree of flexibility and creative control, she says. After "Straight White Men" premiered at the Wexner, Lee thought that the audience liked the play too much, that it wasn't hitting hard enough. So she rewrote and re-rehearsed it before the New York premiere.
"We do our own fundraising, so we can build in flexibility from the get-go," says Lee's co-producer, Aaron Rosenblum. "We're small, and there's no infrastructure, so we're not disrupting a whole system by changing our minds about actors or set design at the last minute. She has way more artistic freedom, without input from outside eyes. Rarely does a playwright get that opportunity."
Bringing Lee to Los Angeles has been a long time coming, says Center Theatre Group's Rodriguez, a fan for more than a decade. The experimental nature of Lee's work wasn't quite accessible enough for the CTG audience, Rodriguez says. "Straight White Men," she adds, is subversive but presented in a form that Rodriguez thinks audience members "would be able to wrap their heads around."
"She may never write another play in this way — who knows? — but I think it's a great way to introduce our audience to her," Rodriguez says.
It's likely Lee won't write anything similar to "Straight White Men" again. Continuing her genre-bending trajectory, Lee has been further branching out. She's a songwriter and vocalist with the rock band Future Wife, and her 2013 debut album, "We're Gonna Die," features David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz.
Lee just finished directing her second short film, "A Meaning Full Life," and is working on an experimental feature screenplay, a dark, post-apocalyptic comedy.
"But I'm also working on some more Hollywoody stuff for film and television," she says. "A half-hour comedy pilot loosely based on me and my world. And comedic screenplays. I want to write work for fortysomething actresses that's funny and not depressing, stuff that's not about how much life sucks for them."
Watch out, Hollywood. Young Jean Lee is coming your way.