By forcing herself to explore subjects she'd rather not, and using theatrical forms that discomfit her, playwright Young Jean Lee pushes her work in fascinating directions. Previous touring shows by the Brooklyn-based Lee have addressed Korean-American stereotyping (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) and, in the searing The Shipment, racism.
"I have a tendency to be somewhat apolitical, and so I tend to do a lot of political work," says Lee in a phone interview.
Her latest is 2012's Untitled Feminist Show, part of The Andy Warhol Museum's Off the Wall series. It's virtually dialogueless — daunting enough for a playwright — and all six women performers are nude throughout.
Partly, Lee meant to correct a theatrical bias. "I had never seen female bodies that deviated from an idealized norm [and] that I wanted to be like," she says. "What could the world look like if people with female bodies had no shame and felt free to behave however they wanted?"
Lee developed the show with performers from dance, cabaret and burlesque. "They were just really huge personalities, which I needed if they were going to be nude," says Lee. The Pittsburgh show features four original cast members: cabaret artist Amelia Zirin-Brown, dancer Katharine Pyle, trans performer Becca Blackwell and performance artist Hilary Clark.
Improvs were shaped by Lee and co-creators Faye Driscoll (choreography) and Morgan Gould (direction). The hour-long show, with music and video projections, unfolds as a series of scenes, from a ritualistic entrance to sequences in which pink parasols are used either as cabaret props or weapons.
The show (co-commissioned by the Warhol) has gotten mostly positive reviews. New Yorker critic Hilton Als called it "one of the more moving and imaginative works I have ever seen on the American stage."
Lee says the nudity hasn't distracted audiences very much. In fact, absent gender signifers like clothing and make-up, she says, "There's something about nudity that makes the performers less gendered."
Some viewers, she says, have objected that a "feminist show" should be more politically confrontational than this one. But Lee says that criticism is itself telling.
"I realized joy makes people uncomfortable," she says. "Joy is seen as feminine. ... People equate power with aggression." But her performers, she says, "are powerful in their joy."