Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee on the Stories She Wants to Tell and Broadway Dreams

Ahead of the tumultuous 2020 Presidential election, Broadway’s first Asian-American playwright Young Jean Lee, rallied Asian-Americans to help her with a special and most important project: translating informational materials for Asian language speaking communities. Lee’s newest role as a bridge-builder and activist keeps her happy and engaged as New York waits patiently for live theater to return. “I have never been busier than I am now,” said the Straight White Men writer. Lee has also been taking this time during shut-down to write and work on new projects. “This is a time when writers can write, so I have been working on a bunch of projects,” says Lee. “For me, it doesn’t really feel like a shutdown, with the exception of not being able to do any live theater.”

Broadway is a new platform for Lee, as the playwright and director is most known for her ambitious downtown theater works. In 2003, Lee founded the Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, where she has since written and directed twelve theatrical productions. I spoke to Lee about her “Broadway dreams,” being the first Asian-American playwright on Broadway, having to explain privilege and her hopes for the future of theater.

Let’s go back to the day when you learned Straight White Men would move to Broadway. What did it mean for you to be the first Asian-American playwright on Broadway?

Because of the way my career was structured [at the time], Broadway was never something that I dreamed about. I did not attend Broadway shows. I barely knew what the Tonys were. I was so in my little world of weird experimental downtown theater that I had no idea what was going on uptown. Second Stage, a non-profit theater company, called me in for a general meeting. It was supposed to be a get-to-know-you thing. I’d been to a bunch of those before, so it didn’t really seem like anything out of the ordinary. I walked into the office and I met the artistic director, Carole Rothman, and she was basically like, “So we’re going to buy a Broadway theater, and we want you to write a new play for us that we will then produce. We don’t have any requirements for it. We just want it to be really diverse.” And I was like, “Great. That sounds okay.” It’s a very strange thing to happen at a general meeting where you’re meeting people for the first time. It’s just not how things work at all. Then almost like an afterthought, Carole said, “But I don’t want to wait for you to finish that new play. I want to put something up right away. We can do the last play that you did.” The last play I’d done was Straight White Men. After the fact, people were saying, “It figures that the only way an Asian woman gets in is through a play about straight men.” But actually, that’s not what happened at all. They would have preferred the non-straight white male play but it just wasn’t written, and they just wanted to get something up fast.

It didn’t feel like a dream come true because that wasn’t my dream. It was, however, an amazing opportunity and it gave me a warm feeling to have somebody believe in me that much that they’re just going to put all their money behind my work. At some point, I found out that I was going to be the first Asian-American woman to have had a play on Broadway which, of course, I didn’t know because I didn’t know anything about Broadway. Then when that happened it was something that I celebrated. But I also was like…in 2018?

Straight White Men was directed by Anna Shapiro. A female writer and director team is a dynamic we, unfortunately, don’t see enough of on Broadway. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you?

Anna is very much a writer’s director. She really wants to honor the playwright’s vision and she really listens to what the playwright has to say. This was my first experience working with somebody else directing my work and being in the same room. As a female director myself, there’s a lot of things that you have to do as a woman when you’re directing that men don’t necessarily have to do, and so, working with someone else who is sort of going through similar things and who knows how to collaborate was definitely a relief. It was really hard for me to work with a director, but I think that it is something that will just always be hard for me. I’m a director, so there’s a part of me that just would rather be doing it. But if I was going to be working with a director, she really could not have bent over backward more for me.

The word “privilege” arose frequently in discussions of your play. Was your intention to normalize that word for the typical Broadway audience? 

Yes! When we did the show at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2017, my collaborators were telling me older white audience members didn’t know what the word privilege meant. They knew it as it pertains to rich people and nobility, but they don’t know about white privilege specifically. And because of that, the play’s message was going over their heads. They’ve never heard the word privilege used in this context, so it just doesn’t mean anything to them. We had the same issue before, we just didn’t know why. We figured it out at Steppenwolf and decided to adjust the show. We began explaining the word to them ahead of the show. That made a huge difference in audience comprehension of what was happening.

Do you think about your audience when you write?

I think about them all the time. I’m always trying to design a complete experience for them. Obviously, you can never make an experience that hits everyone the same way, but there are ways to see how different people react to different things and sort accordingly to make them feel a little bit more uncomfortable or more comfortable if that’s what you want them to feel in the moment. The audience understanding my work is something that’s really important to me.

What kind of stories are you passionate about telling? 

Suffering is at the heart of whatever story I’m interested in. Suffering is tied in many ways to identity and marginalization. There’s something so lonely about suffering in an unequal society. Growing up in a small and predominantly white town, I felt alone in my experience—completely invisible and almost not human. That has impacted my writing and everything I do. My play We’re Gonna Die is not about race per se, but about that feeling of just feeling so badly and feeling like everyone else is going about their lives not caring. I think that anyone from a marginalized group has experienced that at some point.

What are your hopes for the future of theater?

If I were to imagine a future theater, I think it just can’t come back in a sort of semblance of what it was before. I’m a big fan of diversity and anti-racism training. I do believe it’s necessary, but I think that there’s a limit to how much it can help if there’s structural inequality in the institution. If theater could come back more equitable in a foundational way, that would be amazing. If there can be a sort of ground-up, substantial restructuring and rethinking—that would be my hope.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.