Young Jean Lee in Conversation

January 23, 2012

This content is sourced from Movement Research.

Young Jean Lee, playwright and director, talks with producer Caleb Hammons about her new work, The Untitled Feminist Show, now at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through February 4, 2012, as part of the COIL Festival. They discuss Young Jean’s approach to movement practice and the complications of naming and crediting a “Nearly Wordless Show.”

Caleb Hammons: Let’s hear from you about what your process is.

Young Jean Lee: What I generally do is I will come up with an idea for a show. Like, I want to make a show about black identity, or I want to make a feminist show, or I want to make a one person show that I perform.

In the case of The Untitled Feminist Show, I knew that I wanted there to be dance in it and that I wanted the performers to be super charismatic. We got these stars of the downtown scene to come in, from all different worlds. Burlesque, cabaret, theatre. Usually, I will generate text through conversation with the cast. For this show, for some reason, all I wanted to work on was the dancing.

Caleb: Your artistic statement says that you think of the worst idea for a play that you could write, and then you force yourself to write it. The show started out as being called The Untitled Feminist Multimedia Technology Show and now it’s just The Untitled Feminist Show. I was curious if initially it was the “Multimedia Technology” or the “Feminist” part that you thought was the worst idea. Or, were they equally bad ideas?

Young Jean: I generally pick political topics because I think political topics are really hard to do well when you’re making any kind of art. It usually ends up coming across as didactic or simplistic. Feminism fell under that category. And, multimedia technology… I feel pretty alienated by it. I thought I would combine those two things together. What ended up happening was it felt like two different shows, and I had time for one or the other and I picked feminism.

Caleb: Was [feminism] something that you have long been interested in? What about it was pressing to you at this moment?

Young Jean: Feminism has really taken a huge hit. Women are in danger of losing a lot of rights that they have already fought for. Things are a little bit scary right now in this country. [Feminism] has been neglected in the mainstream for a while. It felt like the right moment to focus on it again. I can tell by people’s responses. When I mentioned that I was making a feminist show, people weren’t rolling their eyes. They were like, “Oh! What does that mean today? I haven’t heard that word in a long time.”

Caleb: Did you feel like you went into it with certain grievances or particular issues that you wanted to address? The diversity of the performers is pretty broad in terms of age, background, sexual orientation and gender identity. What surprised you and what changed in terms of the initial statement you wanted to make?

Young Jean: The cast is diverse, but it’s also not. We’re all artists and we all work in this downtown arts community. We are diverse for a downtown collective but, in terms of the world at large, we are incredibly homogenous. I feel like a lot of concerns I had were the concerns the performers had. Like with The Shipment. The Shipment was not, by any means, a major statement about black identity. It was about the representation of black performers because the cast was black performers. The entertainment industry and representations of black people became very important because they were important to those performers. The Shipment covers a very narrow slice of the subject. I feel like with the feminist show, it’s the same way. The show covers a very small area of what was of concern to us.

Caleb: One of my favorite stories from the process of The Shipment was that you initially had these grievances that you presented to the cast, and they said, “Those aren’t the things we are concerned about.” That heavily influenced the process of creating the content of the show. In this case, you were closely collaborating with the performers on how they wanted to shape the show, and how you wanted to shape the show. Was there more overlap?

Young Jean: It’s different. I’m not black! But, with this show, I am female.

Caleb: But do you think that still your experience isn’t going to be the same as all of their experiences? The same way that just because those five cast members were black, that doesn’t mean all of their experiences are the same.

Young Jean: It’s not that our experiences are the same; our experiences are totally different. But our sense of what the major issues are is the same. We were most interested in gender limitations and a desire for more gender fluidity.

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