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Upending racial assumptions

Korean-American playwright explores black identity

Young Jean Lee, at her theater company’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y. Lee created “The Shipment’’ during the rehearsal process with African-American actors. Young Jean Lee, at her theater company’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y. Lee created “The Shipment’’ during the rehearsal process with African-American actors. (Elizabeth Lippman)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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NEW YORK — There are no Asians in “Oklahoma!,’’ Young Jean Lee’s drama teacher told her, so there was no role for her. Following that casting logic, there were no parts for her in the other shows, either. So the girl who would spend a decade studying Shakespeare, then become an experimental playwright and tour the world with her eponymous theater company, didn’t get to be in plays in high school.

Pullman, Wash., where the 36-year-old Lee grew up, close to the Idaho border, is an overwhelmingly white college town surrounded by acre upon acre of wheat fields. As a product of that milieu, she likes to say — tongue somewhat in cheek — that she’s “basically like a white guy in an Asian female’s body.’’

At the same time, she traces a direct line between the discomfort she wants her audiences to feel as they watch her plays and the alienation and isolation she felt for so many years in Pullman, where her family moved from Korea when she was 2. Pieces like “The Shipment,’’ which Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company performs tonight through Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Art, are intended to make theatergoers squirm and question their own assumptions. Along with comedy, music, and pop-culture allusions, unease is intrinsic to the plays Lee makes.

“For me it really is an almost moral position. Like about the world,’’ she explained late one afternoon at a German beer garden up the block from her company’s Brooklyn office. “And I think it comes from having grown up in this all-white town and just seeing the level of complacency. Because it’s like when you’re in a totally homogeneous sort of community where everybody kind of dresses like you and agrees with you — there was just this real sense of complacency and smugness, and it never occurred to anybody to challenge themselves or anything. And I’m sure if I had been white, I would have very happily joined in with that. But since I wasn’t and I was an outsider, I was forced out of that very comfortable position.’’

With “The Shipment,’’ her 2009 play about black identity, Lee aims to jolt all comers from their mindlessness. The show’s in-your-face first half, she writes in her stage directions, “is structured like a minstrel show’’ and intended “to address the stereotypes my cast members felt they had to deal with as black performers,’’ leaving the audience “uncertain what they were watching or how they were supposed to respond.’’ The second half, which the all-black cast performs in a naturalistic style, is more of a sneak attack.

Lee’s plays include “Lear,’’ her take on Shakespeare’s “King Lear’’; “Church,’’ stemming from her experience as part of an evangelical family; and “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,’’ about Asian-American identity. She is the first to admit that in writing “The Shipment,’’ which she began in November 2007, she was not at all following the dictum “Write what you know.’’ Rather, she was writing what her actors knew, and attempting to start a conversation about racism against black people that, before President Obama was elected, she couldn’t get anyone to have.

“This show in particular, I had no content to contribute, because I have no idea what it feels like to be black,’’ said Lee, who creates her plays — which she also directs — during the rehearsal process, not beforehand. “So we would have all these conversations in the room with the actors, and they would say all the things that bothered them that they wanted to express.’’

They also got to veto ideas of hers, whether they were simply uninterested in or slightly scandalized by them.

“Like, we had to figure out a song for them to sing in the show, and they sang the black national anthem [‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’] for me, which I had never heard before. And I just fell in love with it, ’cause they sang it so beautifully,’’ Lee said. But there was no way her actors were letting her put it in the show, she added, laughing. “They were like, ‘Young Jean, you are crazy. That song is sacred. If we were singing that in front of my grandmother, next to all of this other crazy stuff that’s in the show — it’s sacrilegious, and we’re not gonna do it.’ ’’ So she backed down.

Since its premiere last year at the Kitchen in New York, “The Shipment’’ has toured this country, Europe, and, most recently, Australia. In the time since then, and in all the months when she was making the piece, she has never been confronted by anyone who told her she had no right to address the black experience.

“I was terrified about that — and then kind of shocked and disturbed when almost nobody brought that up,’’ she said. Relentlessly self-scrutinizing, critically assessing her every motivation, assumption, and belief, Lee knows she wasn’t exploiting her actors. But that hasn’t stopped her from thinking up potential objections to her play, one of which is that she’s “taking up the black slot in a theater program.’’ If there’s only one, and often there is, “that means a black artist can’t take that slot,’’ she said.

But actor Mikeah Ernest Jennings, a cast member who has worked on “The Shipment’’ with Lee since its beginning, said by telephone that he believed a piece with an all-black cast and a black playwright and director “unfortunately’’ would be alienating to some people — much as “Jersey Boys,’’ the Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, doesn’t appeal to him. Lee’s race, he said, has the unintended effect of giving non-black theatergoers a route into “The Shipment.’’

“It’s some way for them to feel almost like the playwright sympathizes with their curiosity, if I can use that word,’’ Jennings said. “There’s a lot of stigma involved in asking people about their otherness.’’

In posing such questions, Lee was asking her cast to teach her, and they have.

“The biggest shock I got, working on ‘The Shipment,’ was talking to my black actors and finding out that, like, in Midtown during lunch a guy in a suit can call you the N word on the street. And that’s in New York. That’s a regular occurrence,’’ she said.

“My mission with every show is like, ‘How do you reach the moron?,’ and the moron is me, so it makes it really easy,’’ she said. “Because if I can penetrate through my thick shell of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, then it’s gonna work on my audience as well.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

THE SHIPMENT

At: Institute of Contemporary Art, tonight through Sunday. Tickets: $25, students $22. 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org