Young Jean Lee always begins a new play by asking herself: “‘What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?’ And then I force myself to write that play.” It’s a daring approach, and one that’s paid off. Since quitting grad school—where she studied Shakespeare—and launching her own theatre company in New York City, Lee has garnered a reputation for creating theatre that is bold, adventurous, and singularly boundary defying. A fixture of the downtown experimental theatre scene, this summer the playwright and director will become familiar to a whole new audience when she makes her Broadway debut with Straight White Men.
“I’m always supposed to make what I’m not comfortable with,” says Lee. This, and her resistance to identity politics art, are the reason she’s ended up making quite a bit of it—plays that deal with race and identity in strange, funny, and sometimes confrontational ways. With Straight White Men, she wanted to explore an identity that felt the most challenging to her; so she wrote a play about a father and his three adult sons who come together to celebrate Christmas over board games and takeout. Sound familiar? Except it’s not. The play subverts the traditional family drama by becoming an exploration of American values, of capitalist belief systems versus social justice systems, and of identity and privilege.
The piece, though originally directed Off-Broadway by Lee, will be directed on Broadway by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro in a production from Second Stage Theatre. It’ll mark the first time a play written by an Asian-American woman has been produced on Broadway. It may also be the first time a Broadway audience is greeted with loud, explicit female rap music as they walk to their seats.
It’s no surprise that the work of an artist who is driven by what makes her uncomfortable may make audiences uncomfortable too. Wherever Straight White Men has been produced, throughout the United States and the world, one thing has remained constant: some theatregoers become hostile and upset by the music that has been carefully curated for the preshow experience.
“It’s always frightening,” says Lee, who, despite her fearless body of work, doesn’t like to be in conflict with the audience. “I do like to make the audience uncomfortable, but it’s not coming from an antagonistic or aggressive place, so I get upset when they’re upset.” Ultimately, she cares deeply about her audience’s experience. It’s their involvement and investment in her work—live, in the moment—that keeps her drawn to theatre as an art form above any other. That, and the challenge of wanting to write impossible plays.