- First as Minstrelsy, Then as FarceOn the Spectacle of Race in the Theater of Young Jean Lee
I. Stop Making Sense
A young Asian woman is alone on an otherwise bare stage, dressed casually and simply in a T-shirt and jeans, black hair worn down to her shoulders. The raw plywood box set surrounding her is neutral and rough, at once conspicuously artificial and devoid of theatricality. Center stage in this scenic no man’s land, overlit by the clinical glow of fluorescent tubes, she stands impassive, returning the spectator’s look with a cool, vaguely menacing assurance that is neither inviting nor invasive. Her presence exudes something illegible and discomfiting. She holds a pause; then, flashing a deadpan smile, she speaks:
Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys— [End Page 89] these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English... Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey.
Thus begins Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Korean American avant-garde playwright Young Jean Lee’s obscene, violently funny send-up of that particularly American dramatic genre, the ethnic identity play. Songs cobbles together video art, song-and-dance, pantomime, slapstick, even the stock conventions of realist drama in an effort to explore and undermine the fantasies that structure the specular “meaning” of ethnicity and that nourish the widespread expectation that such meaning can and ought to be communicated in and as narrative—as one’s story, or as the larger cultural story to which one is said to belong.
As the passage above signals, the linguistic and dramaturgical resources of Lee’s play are devoted to frustrating such fantasmatic expectations and to tormenting the spectator who would dare maintain them. What would first seem poised to unfold as the redemptive drama of one Korean American’s discovery of her heritage through an encounter with three “native,” “authentic” Koreans (who in costume, bearing, and speech, are little more than walking signifiers of a stereotypical “Asianness”) almost immediately devolves into a chaotic barrage of baroque yellowface minstrelsy. And as though this were not sufficient to upset audience members anticipating a coherent story about what it means to be Korean in the United States today, halfway through Songs, a hitherto unmentioned heterosexual white couple, bearing no discernible relation to the characters, action, or world that has already unfolded, hijacks the stage and sabotages the play with lengthy, boring discussions about their drinking and relationship problems. Though the published text does not retain it, when it premiered, Songs bore the subtitle “A Show About White People In Love,” and in early interviews and advertisements, Lee claimed that while it was about many things, it was most of all about white people. Accordingly, as the show progresses, the white couple’s interruptions grow longer and more frequent, until they colonize the stage once and for all to close the play with a drawn-out, profoundly mundane scene wherein they role play, argue, and talk aimlessly of their mutually reinforcing unhappiness, then [End Page 90] finally resolve to attend couples counseling. The play could scarcely end on a more anticlimactic, dissatisfying note.
Opening to critical acclaim in 2006 at New York City’s HERE Arts Center (as with all her works, Lee directed and oversaw every element of the production), Songs solidified Lee’s position as the darling of the “downtown” avant-garde theater scene, and the most formally innovative and politically daring writer to graduate from the esteemed experimental playwriting MFA at Brooklyn College, under the tutelage of Mac Wellman. Most importantly, though, it introduced what over the course of the next decade would prove to be Lee’s central abiding concern: the relationship between forms of identity, especially those forms marked as marginal or other, and the theatrical structures that render these identity categories stable, legible, and meaningful.
Focusing mainly on two works that foreground the question of race, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006) and The Shipment (2009), what...