Alex Napier’s Interview With Young Jean Lee

Alex Napier, an established, Toronto based playwright and Theatre-maker managed to snag an interview with Young Jean Lee, creator of the award winning play THE SHIPMENT. Napier and Lee discuss some of the concepts and ideas concerning the play and its audience.

AN: You call THE SHIPMENT a ‘Black identity-politics’ show. And yet, it’s unlike any identity based theatre I’m used to. Can you talk a bit about what ‘identity-politics’ means to you in your work?

YJL: For me, identity-politics has to do with looking at the experiences of marginalized groups, and a big part of that experience is having to deal with stereotypes. The actors in THE SHIPMENT have to deal with stereotypes every single day when they go into auditions and get asked to play crack addicts and gang bangers. A lot of this show has to do with their desire to break out of those stereotypical roles and get the opportunity to do other things.

AN: One of the first things I thought when I saw THE SHIPMENT was “teenagers would love this”. Not because it’s directed at them — it’s decidedly not — but because its playful, strange, irreverent, and a bit dangerous. Have high school groups ever been in to see the show? Do you consider kids and teens as audience?

YJL: In general, teens and younger audiences go crazy for my work. I think it’s because my work tends to be kind of rebellious and pushing against the status quo in a goofy way, and teenagers identify with that.

AN: A lot of attention has been given to the way you conceptualize your plays. You think of the worst play you could ever write, and you write it. And you’ve been doing this since grad school! Has that challenge evolved or changed over the years?

YJL: The challenges have gotten worse and more masochistic, to the point where I’m starting to feel like, “Okay, enough. Go a little easier on yourself next time.” The projects have become terrifying to the point where the stress can’t be good for my long-term health.

AN: Theatre by definition is an art form that’s completely of-the-moment. And then these shows are toured sometimes for years. You premiered THE SHIPMENT in October 2008, at the tail end of Obama’s presidential campaign. Has the moment changed? Does the work still feel current to you?

YJL: THE SHIPMENT premiered during a time when suddenly the country was forced to talk about the issue of racism against blacks. I think that made people more receptive to the play than they would have been otherwise. The work still feels current to me because things haven’t changed all that much since then. Our country still has a race problem, and probably will for a long time.

The actors’ performances have become so nuanced after all these years of touring that THE SHIPMENT has become a freak show of sorts—I watch it and think, “How can they possibly be that freakishly good?” It becomes more and more exciting for me to watch. But I don’t tour with the show anymore because the show belongs to the actors now and there’s nothing I could do to improve on what they’re doing.

THE SHIPMENT is available till May 12th and tickets can be purchased from the World Stage page.