Dallas — A quote from Young Jean Lee about her playwriting method has struck a chord since she emerged on the downtown New York scene more than a decade ago. To paraphrase her, on the suggestion of a professor, she thinks of the worst possible idea for a play and then tries to make something out of it. For most writers, that would turn into a tortured or forced idea. Lee has found magic in the method.
Korean-American dramatist writes a play about black stereotypes in America? Sounds terrible. But her play The Shipment is still one of the most provocative shows I’ve seen, since Undermain Theatre staged it in 2011. A play called Straight White Men that uses the title characters to comment on white privilege? Crazy. That one has become her most popular work, and she even revised it a bit after Trump was elected—that’s the version Second Thought Theatre recently staged, one of the best productions so far this year. (It’ll also mark her Broadway debut in 2018.)
How about a cabaret with original pop songs and stories about loneliness, sadness and the inevitability of death? Doubleyou-tee-eff? Yet somehow, that show, We’re Gonna Die, is another of Lee’s triumphs. The 50-minute show, which debuted in 2011 with Lee as the Singer fronting her band Future Wife, finally has its North Texas debut. Directed by Jake Nice (and not under the umbrella of any production company), the production began with a performance before one of the final performances of STT’s Straight White Men (which Nice assistant directed), and closes this Sunday at the Blackhouse in Fort Worth. It has also played in Denton; I caught Die at the Wild Detectives in the Bishop Arts District on June 2.
That performance was to have happened in the Wild Detectives’ fantastic backyard, used for many theatrical and literary endeavors, but rain brought it inside the tiny bookstore/coffee shop/bar. Sammy Rios of the local synth pop band Rat Rios is the Singer, backed by Jacob Metcalf and Aurora de Wilde on guitar, Jermy Johnson on bass, and Dillon White on drums.
With Rios and the band cramped in a small patch of floor at the front of the venue, the audience packed into chairs, around tables and the bar as the rain eased up outside.
If you’ve watched Young Jean Lee perform the entire show (available on her website), you know it doesn’t start off like a standard cabaret, which would offer a song or two before the stories begin (is “play with music” a better descriptive?) It kicks off unceremoniously with two stories, the longest of six spoken passages. The Singer begins with her weird Uncle John, then segues into her childhood friends Emily and Jenny playing a delightful game called Murder. It upsets her, and her mom sings her to sleep with a song called “Lullaby for the Miserable.”
Sample lyrics: “When your brain’s had enough/And your body gives up/You will sleep/By and by/…You are not the only one.”
From there, the song titles could be on a bizarro-universe list of scrolling titles on one of those 1970s/80s commercials for a collection of disco/country/insert-genre-here hits. You know, “Order now for $19.99, and you get these other great songs” (you’ll have to imagine the scrolling):
“I Still Have You”
“Comfort for the Lonely”
“When You Get Old”
“I’m Gonna Die”
The stories, which Lee writes in her author’s note of the published script, are all true, “but not all of them happened to me… The show is designed for anyone to be able to perform as themselves without adopting a theatrical persona.”
The stories are about a painful breakup, a mother’s disappointment, a good friend’s bizarre accident after learning about her cheating husband, her father’s bout with cancer, and her discovery of her own mortality after finding a white hair. You know, happy talk. Hakuna matata.
They are sad stories, sure, but so engagingly written with humor and detail—the kind of writing that evokes vivid mental pictures from the reader/listener—and beautifully told by Rios, it’s as if she’s talking to a roomful of people who are about to friend request her on Facebook. Or perhaps she’s the selected speaker in a 12-step group, and we’re all eager to hear her share her misery.
The songs are also filled with realizations that should be shocking, but come off as matter-of-fact in the form of a lead vocalist of a rock band. The music is hook-laden and infectious.
In that sense, they remind of The Smiths/Morrissey (minus the poetry and declarative-sentence song titles), who had a knack for witty, sad lyrics in an upbeat musical arrangement (see “Girlfriend in a Coma” or “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”). Except in We’re Gonna Die, the Singer doesn’t have Moz’s earnestness, and that’s perfect. Rios’ Singer is anything but aloof.
Revel in the odd comfort of hearing someone else’s pain, via everyday conversation or in song. Comfort because they make you feel better, or less worse, about your situation.
It’s impossible not to pep up when the Singer and the band perform the final song, “I’m Gonna Die,” with the lyrics “I’m gonna die someday/Then I’ll be gone/And it’ll be okay…Someone will miss me/Someone will be so sad/And it’ll hurt/It’s gonna hurt so bad.”
Mortality doesn’t seem so scary when we accept that it’s a problem not unique to us and the people we love. It’s a global epidemic.
Then the Singer and the band close by doing something so ridiculously goofy—as instructed in Lee’s stage directions—that you leave the venue doing a little dance and cheerily repeating the refrain “we’re gonna die.” Not dissimilar to seeing the film Singin’ in the Rain and then instantly yearning to swing around lampposts and splash in puddles.
Go see this production in its last performance on Sunday (you can DVR the Tonys), and then watch Young Jean Lee’s original performance online. Then watch the version where she tells the stories and David Byrne sings the songs. Finally, listen to the album by Lee’s band Future Wife, which features guest storytellers and vocalists like Adam Horovitz (Ad-rock of the Beastie Boyes), former riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna, Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire, Byrne and the great Laurie Anderson.