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Who is Young Jean Lee?

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(L–R) Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd, Richard Riehle, and Brian Slaten in "Straight White Men" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Playwright. Director. Singer. Filmmaker. Korean-American. Feminist. Experimental. Adventurous. Provocative. Young Jean Lee and her boundary-pushing, genre-bending, radically inclusive work is impossible to place in any one box. So who is the playwright and director behind Straight White Men, which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre November 20 through December 20, 2015? We’ve collected a few profiles and interviews from the past few years that give a sense of how she works, what inspires her, where she’s been, and what she might do next.

In a 2009 consideration of Lee’s work, The New Yorker theatre critic Hilton Als wrote:

Lee is a facetious provocateur; that is, she does whatever she can to get under our skin—with laughs and with raw, brutal talk that at times feels gratuitous, and is meant to.
Beneath the surface, Lee seems to say in her work, most people are cauldrons of awfulness. Political correctness is a front—and, by now, a tattered one. Any talk of race in our post-Raisin in the Sun world seems like a tired joke.

In an interview that same year with The New York Times, Patrick Healy described how Lee came to be a playwright:

Ms. Lee, who speaks quickly and seemingly with exclamation points to punctuate her strongly held beliefs, is something of an accidental playwright. She grew up in eastern Washington State and planned to pursue an academic career. But she dropped out of her Ph.D. program in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in her late 20s as her dissertation on King Lear was stalling and her marriage was crumbling.
“I was having a nervous breakdown because I was so unhappy, and I went to a therapist who asked me very directly, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ ” Ms. Lee recalled. “And I said, ‘I want to be a playwright.’ It literally came out of nowhere. I’d never written a play. It was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut.”

In 2010, after Lee formed a band called Future Wife in which she sang lead, she talked to Gwen Orel in The Wall Street Journal about why she writes (though she hates it) and why she sings (though she doesn’t necessarily have a brilliant talent):

The thing I hate about writing is very specific. In the beginning stages of writing everything that you write is bad. It’s excruciating torture for me. I will do anything in my power to avoid starting to write. Then I love writing and can write for 8 hours straight.
I don’t want to be horrible and show everybody a horrible time. I think I’m going to start taking voice lessons, and accept the fact that I’m dealing with somebody who doesn’t have skills in that area.

In a 2012 interview on WNYC’s Studio 360 series on “Aha Moments,” Lee talked about growing up Asian-American in Pullman, Washington—and how reading a Rolling Stone review of the Beastie Boys 1989 album Paul’s Boutique ended up changing her life:

I was incredibly sort of isolated there. I didn't have any friends, and I remember the way I dealt with being so foreign was just trying to assimilate as much as possible. ...It was like the first time in my life that I had ever heard of something that sounded weird that was intriguing. And then I went out and bought the album.

Last year, in an interview about Straight White Men, Lee, whose previous plays have been experimental in both form and subject matter, told American Theatre about learning how to write a naturalistic play for the first time, “which is a really hard thing to do if you’ve never done it before”:

It’s really hard to make anything—and it’s really hard to make good theatre. Period. No matter what kind of theatre it is. I think I’ve been more generous toward experimental theatremakers in the past because I know what they are trying to do—and now I’m realizing naturalistic theatre is really equally difficult, if not more so, because you’re constrained in more ways—there’s less freedom. So working on a naturalistic play is probably going to change me. My brain has been rewired to think in terms of character and plot. I don’t know if I can just get rid of that, you know? I’m sure I’ll be able to write nonlinear things again, but I’ll be writing them with the knowledge of what the linear version would be.

And on All Things Considered, Lee (whom NPR called “arguably one of the hottest playwrights in America right now”) told Neda Ulaby of one of her epiphanies while writing Straight White Men:

I can always say, “Oh, well I’m just pursuing my own ambition, but I’m making the world a better place.” Because now there's this Asian female playwright who can be a role model for other artists of color, and I'm helping with diversity. And so I can just do whatever I want and sort of get on the good-person list. And it occurred to me that, as I was doing the show and listening to people talk about straight white men—straight white men don't really have that option.

Read more about Lee’s process of writing Straight White Men in this interview with Center Theatre Group.

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