TBA:09 Artistic Director Highlights: Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company

young jean lee - the shipment
Each week in August, TBA:09 Artistic Director Cathy Edwards will zero in on different artists and projects coming to the Time-Based Art Festival this September. Today’s post is the second in this series.
At TBA:09, PICA is presenting some extraordinary ensemble theater companies from the US, Ireland, and Australia. We are starting out the festival with the brilliant and fearless American playwright Young Jean Lee, whose piece The Shipment will be running at the Gerding Theatre at the Armory over Labor Day weekend. This remarkable play manages to take on the issue of the day–anxiety about relationships between white culture and African-American culture–while maintaining its sense of humor and deftly exploring both theatrical structure and visceral content. It’s terrifyingly astute and is performed by a fantastic ensemble of actors capable of handling everything the script throws at them, from stand-up comedy to naturalistic theater. It’s always a pleasure to watch actors like these.

Young Jean Lee’s work and style have evolved rapidly, while continuing to feature important recurring motifs–a lack of irony, a directness that has no truck with melodrama or pretense, and the yardstick of her own burning questions about what makes an interesting piece of theater. She is only 35 years old and though she has lots of weighty issues on her mind, she appears to be free of the anxiety of theatrical influence, while nonetheless aware of the range of theatrical vocabularies that have preceded her. Her work has already achieved so much, and her voice is so authoritative, that THE SHIPMENT definitely counts as one of the big moments of TBA:09.
Why did I find this performance to be so astute and fearless? Race in America, and the resultant layers of political correctness and doubt and discomfort, leave many people unsure not only how to act but also how to feel about race and racial difference. The observations that Young Jean Lee makes about the African-American experience are so direct, and yet so finessed by humor and custom. She has never been afraid of tough and primal subject matters, but for a Korean-American playwright to write a play that attempts to engage directly with African-American identity in America is a brave thing. Young Jean Lee’s next project is an adaptation of King Lear–I can’t wait to her interpretation of parent-child relationships through the lens of Shakespeare!

For those of you who simply love theater, I know you will appreciate that this piece experiments with conventional theater structures and nonetheless delivers a complete experience for the audience. In Young Jean’s prior work, Church, she took her theatrical form from a spiritual experience, a revival show, a morning at church. In that piece, she used choreography and dance as one portion of the work, choosing a physical, rather than narrative, form to convey ecstasy. I don’t want to give away too much, but in THE SHIPMENT she makes similarly bold choices.
I was amazed to watch the play unfold and to understand that act one is built up around the theatrical convention of the solo performer/stand-up comedy routine; act two is built around the notion of a morality tale; and act three engages the living-room drama. I love it when a writer feels free to use and adapt the forms that speak to her project. The structural experimentation added an entirely new element to my appreciation of the play, and I can only hope that TBA audiences will feel the same!
Read the New York Times review of The Shipment.
Catch The Shipment September 4-6 at TBA:09 and hear Young Jean Lee in conversation with artist Arnold J. Kemp on Sunday, September 6 for a noontime chat: Unpacking THE SHIPMENT.

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