Art and parcel
Playwright Young Jean Lee puts a tracking number on black identity.
“I started the show pre-Obama, and his election really changed the reception of this show. I strongly believe that,” writer-director Young Jean Lee says of The Shipment, her work about black identity that appears this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Before Barack Obama became a viable presidential candidate, Lee says, “nobody wanted to talk about black identity and racism against black people. People would get so defensive and resistant. And they’re not like that when you talk about, like, Asian-American identity. There’s not that same sense of being accused.”
Lee, who’s had a quick rise through New York’s downtown scene since moving to that city in 2002, has developed a reputation as a provocateur. Time Out New York last year called her “a playwright who has built a career on pushing buttons and daring us to despise her,” while The New Yorker wrote “she does whatever she can to get under our skin—with laughs and with raw, brutal talk.”
After laboring for six years studying Shakespeare for an English literature Ph.D. at Berkeley, “I basically hated academia so much I had a nervous breakdown,” the 35-year-old playwright tells us over the phone from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, on her way back to New York after visiting her parents. (Her show Pullman, WA  is named for her hometown.) When her therapist asked her what she wanted to do with her life, “playwright” popped out. “It’s like studying to be a veterinarian, then saying you want to be a puppy,” she muses. Lee circumvented the system by hanging out her own shingle—Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company—to direct and produce her work.
In 2006, Lee debuted her first foray into identity politics, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, in which the Korean-American writer dabbled in Asian minstrelsy and stereotypes. The Shipment gives a similar treatment to African-American minstrelsy.
“This is the first time I’ve done a show where I didn’t really know anything about the subject matter,” Lee says. “Not being black, I couldn’t write from a personal place. Unless I wanted to write about what I think about black identity, which is not a show I was interested in making.”
As she does with all of her work, Lee cast The Shipment before she wrote it, developing it in collaboration with her performers. At two disastrous workshops of a hip-hop dance version, some white viewers chuckled complacently while black viewers walked out. “If you’re not black and you’re making a black-identity show, every most horrible thing you can imagine happening happened,” Lee recalls. She started over with a new cast. “We just had conversations about concerns they had, things that bugged them,” she says. “I was writing in response to them.”
Lee says her actors had stereotypes at the top of their list: “Even today they go into auditions and they’re asked to play a gangbanger or a drug dealer or a rapper or a crack whore,” which informed the show’s deadpan streets-to-riches rapper narrative.
Though The Shipment marks Lee’s first Chicago outing, she’s toured her work extensively across North America and Europe. “It’s the only way my company can support itself. There’s just not enough grant money for artists in the U.S.,” she says.
The Shipment, which premiered at Ohio State University just before the 2008 election, uses the forms of minstrelsy but tweaks the content to disorient the audience: “We wanted to make something that’s marked as black performance but where there’s no simple reaction,” Lee says. “You don’t know if you’re supposed to be offended or laughing or enjoying it.”
The Shipment arrives at the MCA Friday 26.