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  • We’re Gonna Die
  • Dan Venning (bio)
Second Stage Theater, New York, NY

The last show I saw before theatres were shuttered in New York City on March 12, 2020, could not have had a more prophetic title. Two days earlier, on March 10, I traveled from Schenectady to see Raja Feather Kelly’s revival of Young Jean Lee’s semi-autobiographical and genre-bending rock musical We’re Gonna Die. The performance was completely sold out and all seats were filled, but there was an aura of trepidation in the air. Should we all be there? Were we endangering ourselves or the other audience members? How bad might the pandemic get? Might theatres and other gathering places be shut down? Less than forty-eight hours later, most of these questions were answered. The only thing that was certain was in the title of the show—we all are going to die, someday—but little did we know how real this would become, or how quickly.

As audiences entered the Tony Kiser Theater, we were greeted by a digital display next to the risers, and above it, a note reading “the number of people who have died during the course of this performance.” The numbers slowly ticked upwards as we entered the theatre; by the time I left less than two hours later, the numbers had reached 5,945. Before the show started, a neon sign with the title of the play in all caps (“WE’RE GONNA DIE”) moved back and forth in front of the stage as the speakers blasted pop songs with on-the-nose lyrics, such as Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die.” David Zinn’s set was a purgatorial waiting room, with chairs facing a vending machine stage left. At center right, a massive spiral staircase extending up into the fly space and down into a pit below it. Throughout the show, the lighting cast a pastel violet pallor over everything, and along with their funky costumes, this made the performers look like they should be at an underground punk party instead of a waiting room (if that’s where that are at all). At minute-long intervals throughout the show, a balloon falls from above, [End Page 60] landing and bouncing around the stage, sometimes coming to rest and occasionally falling into the pit at the base of the spiral staircase. The central role (called “Singer”) was played with vivid intensity by the Black artist Janelle McDermoth, who won an Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance. McDermoth made the semi-autobiographical fictions Lee had originally written for herself ring true on that night on the eve of the lockdown.

Lee wrote We’re Gonna Die for herself and her band Future Wife, and first performed it in 2011 at Joe’s Pub under the direction of Paul Lazar. She has written and spoken about how she forces herself to do the hardest possible thing with each new play she writes, and in this case, part of the challenge was writing a rock musical that she had to perform in herself. The show consists of a series of monologues about deeply personal tragedies—lost friendships, lovers, family members—and the ways in which our sufferings, while specific and individual, are in a sense a shared part of the human experience. After each of these monologues, the Singer punctuates the story by performing a song with rock accompaniment in which the lyrics come from words of comfort: her mother’s night-time kindness; her mother’s impersonation of her grandmother; her own thoughts as she falls asleep; a personal revelation after reading a letter from a friend. I missed the original production in which Lee performed the central role, and part of the reason I saw the revival was the way my spouse spoke about her experience of the original: she had gone in 2011 with a friend whose father had just passed away, and the show had seemed particularly powerful because of the context in which they saw it together.

In my own personal experience, We’re Gonna Die will never be divorced from the pandemic. The show, while...


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pp. 60-62
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