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Meet ‘The Most Adventurous Downtown Playwright of a Generation”

December 30, 2022

By Lydia Baxter

“Off the top of your head, what do you want to do with your life?” asked Young Jean Lee’s therapist in a session one day. Completely a surprise to her, Lee blurted out, “I want to be a playwright.” At the time, Lee was enrolled in UC Berkeley’s English PhD program and was feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled. In the coming years, she moved to New York City and enrolled in Brooklyn College’s distinguished playwriting graduate program. When it came time to submit her first script, she couldn’t create anything that she felt was strong enough. She had a sort of “stage fright” because she wanted to write something that was as interesting as the work of playwrights she admired. Her mentor, Mac Wellman, advised that she write a script that she didn’t want to write, that she work on a script that would be the worst possible play she could think of. Lee has taken that advice to heart, and every time that she begins a new project she asks herself, “What is the last play in the world I would ever want to write?”

This unorthodox approach to playwriting has turned out to be quite fruitful for Young Jean Lee, who has since written and directed ten of her own plays. She created her own theatre company and her work has toured to over 30 cities internationally. Lee has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, earned two Obie Awards, received a Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has received numerous grants from arts organizations and commissions from theatres across the country. The New Yorker calls her “a troubling, necessary presence” in American theater, while The New York Times dubs her “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.”

You may ask yourself, what exactly is it about Young Jean Lee’s work that makes it so “adventurous?” After all, one of her first plays, The Appeal (2004), features Romantic poets arguing about writing, literature, and furniture. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? In reality, no one is safe from Young Jean Lee’s discerning eye— her work tackles assumptions about identity, no matter its shape or size. She has written plays about Asian Americans (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) and African Americans (The Shipment). She’s enveloped audiences in a religious service (Church) and invited members to sing and dance with the actors playing the “congregation.” One of her earlier plays, Pullman, WA, places the audience in a self-help seminar that examines the best way to live life. Regardless of what topic she tackles in her work—whether it is mortality,
religion, or gender—Lee approaches each endeavor with compassion and respect, and frequently adds in large amounts of humor just to be safe.

Unrestrained by the limits of theatrical form and unafraid to confront complicated and sensitive subjects, Lee’s courage and creative genius have catapulted her into a league of her own. Lee is the first Asian American woman to have her work produced on the Great White Way. She has broken into a world that has mostly been populated by straight white men, thus paving the way for other female Asian American playwrights like Julia Cho (Office Hour), Lauren Yee (The Great Leap), and Qui Nguyen (Vietgone). Plus, Lee is in high demand—she is currently under commission from Lincoln Center Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a songwriter and vocalist with the band Future Wife, and is working on material for television and film. Looks like Young Jean Lee is coming for you next, Hollywood.