The complete script of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is published in the September 2007 print issue. This in-your-face skewering of identity politics opens with video footage of the playwright being struck repeatedly in the face, followed by a monologue in which a Korean-American girl asks, “Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents?” Before long, the play’s incisive deconstruction of Asian stereotypes is hijacked by the relationship troubles of two characters named White Person 1 and White Person 2.
Young Jean Lee was born in Korea in 1974 and moved to the United States when she was two. An OBIE award-winning playwright and director, she has been called “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation” by The New York Times and “one of the best experimental playwrights in America” by Time Out New York. She founded Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company to produce her work in 2003, and has toured to more than 20 cities around the world. Her plays have been published by Theatre Communications Group (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays, The Shipment and LEAR) and by Samuel French (Three Plays by Young Jean Lee).
Jeffrey M. Jones: So how did you start this project?
Young Jean Lee: The way I begin all my plays is by asking myself what would be the last play in the world I’d ever want to write, and then forcing myself to write it. Because if I tell myself to write something really great, then I become completely paralyzed. So for this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern, and I don’t think that it makes any difference at all. It’s become the status quo.
Did you come up with some characters right away?
It’s a destructive impulse—I want to destroy the show: make it so bad that it just eats itself, eating away at its own clichés until it becomes complicated and fraught enough to resemble truth. So I started writing every horrible thing I could possibly think of, like the story of the young Asian woman describing her brutal rape at the hand of some man that her father sold her to. Another was the intergenerational conflict scene between the grandmother and the granddaughter. Every cliché I could think of—I was just spewing them out.
In the most obvious, ham-fisted way possible.
Now at that point, aren’t you starting to have fun?
Oh, I’m having a great time. It’s like when you’re a kid playing with Barbie dolls, and suddenly you pick up the Godzilla figure and knock over the Barbie dream house. It’s this childish, destructive impulse, where you realize that ruining something is going to have the most interesting results. So I came up with the character of the Korean-American, who’s supposedly doing a clichéd monologue about how it feels to be Asian, but saying all this stuff that’s totally inappropriate. That was my destructive sabotaging instinct. Because that’s the rule: I have to make an Asian identity politics show, but I can ruin it if I want. That’s what makes it bearable to do something you don’t want to. You’re allowed to ruin it—that’s fine. And that’s why the white people come in. I was taking great glee from ruining the play, and then it occurred to me, “Wow, what if this white couple comes in, having a relationship drama, and they just take the play over?” The single biggest complaint I’ve gotten about the show was, “Why do the white people come on at the end and take it over?” People were very frustrated.
Now, the opening of the play is…
…the hitting video.
Right. So how did the hitting video fit into the history of the play?
Well, honestly, sometimes things just pop into my head. They don’t really come out of any logic, and I make sense of them after the fact. The hitting video now makes sense to me, but when I first thought of it, it just popped into my head as the right way to begin the show. I had this image of somebody beating the crap out of me—black eye, bloody nose, just beating me up. And everybody told me: Look, there’s no way to control it so you don’t end up with a broken nose or detached retina or something really serious. So I had to settle for the slapping. Nobody had never hit me in the face before, so it was really an experiment to see what would happen. My immediate reaction was just to start bawling. It was so upsetting. To get hit in the face is something so deeply personal and insulting, and just so horrifying. And I got hit in the face for about 20 minutes. After the fact, when I was thinking about how it fit into the show, I felt like it was really a play on Asian self-hatred. Which is a huge cliché—it’s like bad ’60s performance art.
As well as some very good ’60s performance art. It’s a way of working that may be unfamiliar to playwrights, but it puts you in the play—quite literally—and connects directly to some visceral and unpleasant emotions which would be hard to articulate if you tried to recreate the situation through a character that stands in for you.
One of the big identity politics clichés is that it’s a confessional narrative about you. So I put a direct reference to the hitting video in the grandmother scene, where the grandmother asks, “Why you ask your friend hit you in face? And then make video?” I make it seem as if the Korean-American character is an explicit stand-in for me, when really she’s this self-hating, racist freak who says a lot of crap I don’t believe. I think that most people get that it’s a joke, but occasionally someone will think that she’s really supposed to be me.
I hadn’t thought of the confessional aspects of the play, but it’s what the White People are doing too, in their own tortured way.
Usually the only people who pick up on this are minorities—but people point out that the White People, with a few exceptions, could easily be substituted for people of any race.
And have the same conversations? Is that true?
It’s totally true, and that’s the reason white people never pick up on it. White people identify with those characters, but they don’t realize that they’re identifying with them because they’re in a relationship, and not because they’re white. Ultimately, I’m interested in the homogeneity of a certain demographic, which is strikingly similar across racial lines: the college-educated, urbane, thirtysomething navel-gazing American.
How do you put this play together? Because it doesn’t feel like a conventional play with a story and a resolution.
For me, writing and directing go completely hand-in-hand. I’ll write a scene and bring it into rehearsal and see if it works. If it’s a total failure, I just throw it out. If it has potential, then I rewrite it with the actors on their feet. I’ll have them making changes in their scripts, then I’ll take it home, rewrite it, and bring it in the next day. And eventually I can see a shape.
So the script that you start out with on day one in rehearsal probably doesn’t look at all like—
There is no script day one of rehearsal. There’s just a scene that I bring in.
(Laughter.) How do you sleep at night??
I don’t. I don’t. It’s a totally harrowing way to make work.
It’s like slapping yourself in the face.
Yeah, it’s pretty brutal. But the good thing to be said for it is that it leaves no room for writers’ block. And you can always throw stuff out. I mean, I throw stuff out like crazy. I use a fraction of what I generate in the actual show.
Another thing people like about the play is that it’s so aggressive. Traditionally, that’s a male macho strategy.
That’s a very perceptive observation. I say in the unison monologue the Asian women speak at the end that “my whole mentality is identical in structure to a sexist, racist, homosexual white male. People think of me as this empowered Asian female, but really I’m just a fucking white guy”—I tap into that white male mentality to further my own nefarious Asian-American ends. Early on, I saw where the power was and how it operated, and I adopted that voice and identity as my own to mess with people’s heads. One of my fantasies has been to write one of those macho, very male plays—you know, in the tradition of David Mamet. I mean, if I were to write one, it would be so much more over the top. You’d be surprised at how macho an Asian woman can be.
Playwright Jeffrey M. Jones is the author of 70 Scenes of Halloween and curator of the Obie Award–winning Little Theatre series.