(Als’s article appeared in the New Yorker 11/13.)
A musty late-spring evening in Manhattan, 2012. The voluble and irrepressible playwright and director Young Jean Lee swivelled in her seat to take in the audience. The Korean-born Lee, who is now forty and has made a considerable name for herself on the downtown theatre scene, was far from her professional home. She was, in fact, on Broadway, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, on West Forty-eighth Street, waiting for a performance of Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning hit “Clybourne Park” to begin. Looking over all the middle-aged, suit-jacketed men and their well-heeled lady companions around her, Lee sort of shivered and said, “But everyone’s so old.” Although Norris’s play about convention, class, and race touched on themes that Lee had broken down and pieced back together at odd angles in her own work, his relatively traditional naturalism was a far cry from her irreverent, essayistic, collagist approach to storytelling, which makes her, for a range of theatre critics and audiences, a troubling, necessary presence.
In her feminist-minded works, in which characters sometimes talk more to the audience than they do to one another, Lee had built drama around racially driven self-hatred, the naked body, and patriarchy, among other things. Now she wanted to write a different kind of play: a naturalistic work like Norris’s, on the subject of straight white men. In short, she wanted to create art about something that she did not entirely understand in a genre that she hadn’t fully explored. (The result, “Straight White Men,” premièred at the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio, in April, and will make its New York début at the Public in November.)