By Zach Freeman
As a twenty-six-year old graduate student studying Shakespeare at Berkeley and working on her dissertation, a frustrated Young Jean Lee, fed up with academia, went to a therapist for help. The therapist started by posing a question to Lee that she was told to answer off the top of her head: “What do you want to do with your life?” Lee was so shocked by her own response (“I want to be a playwright.”) that she asked the therapist for a do-over. Recounting the moment later, Lee jokes that, “If you’re studying Shakespeare and you say that you want to be a playwright and you have no experience playwriting, it’s like being a veterinarian and saying that you want to be a dog.”
Still, over the last decade, the Korean-American Lee has managed to make more than a name for herself in the world of experimental theater, she’s won Obies and created an oeuvre of provocative, high-profile pieces that defy easy categorization. Among others, there’s “The Shipment,” a “Black identity politics show” (her words), “Church,” a surprisingly earnest exploration of Christianity and “We’re Gonna Die,” a show about that one thing that every single living human has in common (hint: see title).
There’s a reason Lee’s work has tackled such varied and controversial subject matter over the years. It’s clearly written in the first line of the artistic statement of Lee’s New York-based theater company (appropriately named Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company): “When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ Then I force myself to make it.”
This week, Chicago audiences will have a chance to enter the mind of Young Jean Lee, as “Untitled Feminist Show,” a mostly dialogue-less show that features six nude performers dancing, fighting and generally just using movement to tell what words can’t, is performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show premiered last year in Minneapolis and has since toured in select locations domestic and international.
At first “Untitled Feminist Show” sounds like a cop-out of a title, until you really start to think about what a title like that implies. Think of the preconceived notions that the word “feminist” alone evokes in various groups. And how much harder does that make the task of subverting expectations for an experimental playwright like Lee? In addition, the lack of words in the show is a ballsy (forgive the phrase) move for someone known for such powerful dialogue. “In New York a few people got mad about this and said that in order to be feminist you need to preach,” says Lee. “But I disagree.” Clearly.
Those looking for a feminist sermon should look elsewhere. In a previous interview, Lee laid out her lack of agenda when writing anything: “The one thing that’s been consistent throughout all of my shows is that there isn’t a single argument in them, ever. I’m not trying to make one point.” Lee has a more nuanced plan: “I’m trying to lay out all of the conflict that I see, present it, and have you wrestle with it on your own.”
With “Untitled Feminist Show,” Lee found in early workshops that movement just communicated information more effectively. “I tried hard to write words that could compete with the movement and dance, but I couldn’t,” Lee freely admits. “There are no words in the play because I wanted audience members to have their own questions and thoughts and emotional responses to the show without having some message imposed on them.”
But perhaps the nudity itself is enough of a message. “For me, the starting point of the show was the desire to see performers with a range of realistic female body types who were 100 percent confident, fierce and fabulous,” says Lee. “Women are trained to have so much shame about their bodies and looks. I thought it would be amazing to see people with female-coded bodies who didn’t seem to experience any of that, even without clothes or makeup.”
And lest the nude aspect raise questions of objectification under the guise of celebration, Lee is quick to explain. “I wanted the nudity to be the opposite of titillating and objectifying, with the performers seeming completely powerful and comfortable in their own skins.”
In this hour-long show, each of the performers has brought something important from their various backgrounds (ranging from theater to dance to burlesque). And though Lee doesn’t have any formal dance training, she worked with the performers, choreographer Faye Driscoll and her associate director Morgan Gould to construct the movement-heavy show piece by piece, tweaking aspects as they went along through rehearsals and a number of workshops. “Everyone I work with always wants to kill me because I’m constantly changing things,” says Lee. “But it pays off in the end.”
With this kind of tweak-as-you-go approach, I asked Lee when she considers a show “complete.” Though she initially counted the New York premiere as the date of completion, she admitted to further refinement during tours, finally settling on a more definitive answer: “The script gets set after it’s published.”
“Untitled Feminist Show” begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Edlis Neeson Theater, 220 East Chicago, on April 18 and runs through April 21. For tickets, call (312)397-4010.