The Shipment

16 May 2009

Looking forward to seeing Young Jean Lee‘s performance The Shipment again next week in KunstenFestivaldesArts. I’ve been meaning for ages to write something about Young Jean. I saw her third piece Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven in Toulouse last year, at least a year after everyone else saw it, since it seemed to play in almost very festival of contemporary theatre I came across – usually a week before we arrived or a week after we left. Dragons.. was a response to the experience and representation of Korean people in America – it was strong, funny and playfully self-conscious. Her new work The Shipment is also about racial stereotypes, racism and representation esp, this time, in respect of African Americans. When I met her last year she was in the middle of a very tough workshopping process on the piece and had already junked one whole version of the it. She’s since junked a second version too and the completed show is basically version three. What I find interesting about Young Jean (a Korean-American Shakespeare scholar who quit her research on the West Coast, moved to New York and wanted to make a theatre that didn’t really seem to exist) is that in many ways she comes from outside the by-now well known patterns of contemporary devised performance. Her approach seems close to ours at times for sure -her writing and making processes are deeply collaborative, full of discussions, opportunities for interventions by the performers.  I can also say that the mode of trying endless mixes, remixes, variations or versions of the material until coming up with something that seems to function also rings a bell from our own laborious processes! (We have a joke in the rehearsals often that our method is to try every bad idea first, slowly eliminating them from our enquries until we get to what’s interesting.) Young Jean is also pretty obsessed with the role of the audience and with shifting the relationship between the work and those watching. What’s different though is that Young Jean’s work often takes place in or around the realm of the dramatic – and in the mix of what she does you’re likely to find characters talking to each other, dramatic scenes and stories and at least a hint of the kind of representation that (out where Forced Ents have tended to live at least) you won’t see too much of these days. Even a quick glance at Young Jean’s work though and you see that it stays far from the zone of realism or well-made-plays. You aware that everything on stage exists inside one or more sets of quotation marks, and any reading you make of what’s happening is of necessity an uneasy one – you’re required to watch and read and to watch yourself watching and reading, and at the same time to watch the watching and reading of those around you in the auditorium. I saw The Shipment in New York when it opened at the start of the year and I really liked it – it’s a brave and refreshing piece, a tight symphony of discomfort. And it’s so great to see issues like racial and cultural identity taken on in this headlong, smart, self-conscious way. When you watch Young Jean Lee and her great group of performers get to work in this piece – blurring between stand up, fast forward narrative and sustained ironic/not-ironic drama – you get a hint of what’s left inside the theatre machine, and a great reminder that we shouldn’t leave politics to the realists.

If you want to, watch Hitting Video – prologue video to Young Jean’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Watch a clip from the show. Watch a long conversation between Young Jean and Philip Bither of the Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis.