Young Jean Lee, a playwright known for her unusual tactic of choosing the "worst idea possible" and running with it, has created a piece based on what she considered to be a pretty basic premise -- female coded, empowered bodies moving through space.
What she didn't expect was for this "Untitled Feminist Show" to be dubbed groundbreaking. Happy tears and outrage were not the reactions Lee had anticipated from what she thought was an elemental celebration.
"Untitled Feminist Show" features six performers from different artistic backgrounds -- from burlesque, dance, and performance art backgrounds -- engaged in a bold celebration of the body free from limits, objectification, classification... or clothing. For seventy five minutes the nude performers participate in a muscular, jiggly, bawdy ode to flesh and joy, fashioning a feminist fantasy where bodies can exist free from judgment and shame.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Director of Performing Arts at Yerba Buena, explained another unusual aspect of the piece. "It is composed as a play without words," he told The Huffington Post. "It was about using the body as language and also using body language to change how we speak about gender and its deconstruction."
As Lee's production heads to San Francisco this weekend, we reached out to Lee to learn more about what the New Yorker's Hilton Als called "one of the more moving and imaginative works I have ever seen on the American stage."
The two immediately noticeable things often mentioned about the show are the fact that there is a lack of language and a lack of clothing. Do you see a connection there as far as limits or boundaries?
The reason for the lack of language and the lack of clothing are sort of related. We found that whenever they wore clothes people would immediately make all kinds of assumptions about how they identified gender-wise. Whatever they wore, that would automatically happen. And we wanted them to be free from any sort of gender identification or labeling. We found the best way to do that was not to wear any clothes at all. Also, the show is a celebration of the possibility of having a female coded body but not feeling constrained to any type of role or behavior because of that.
The reason for the lack of words is, we actually had words at the beginning. But I found that whenever we had words people would have these very academic arguments about feminism that weren't interesting arguments. Arguments that everybody had already heard before. The point of the show wasn't to forward some amazing new mind-blowing critical theory about feminism. That wasn't what the show had to offer so the conversations coming out of the show were not that interesting to me. What was interesting to me was giving the audience an experience that a lot of them might not have had before. And I found the only way to do that was to take out words entirely. Even if there were just a few words in it the audience would latch onto, and start a debate.
You have talked about changing your shows until the last minute. Has this piece changed at all throughout its travels?
We've had a lot of cast changes. That's inevitably changed the show, having to adapt to new people. The choreography hasn't really changed. The show is mostly about the energy between performers and that's remained pretty consistent.
"Untitled Feminist Show" feels different from how feminism is conventionally portrayed or discussed today. Do you see your work interacting with the feminist performance artists of the sixties?
I feel like -- it's weird -- the way that I feel about feminism is that we haven't made all that much progress. I don't feel like we're in a particularly advanced period of feminism. I feel like, in the general population, most of the women that I talk to don't identify as feminists, which I think is absolutely insane. We were talking in rehearsals, saying that it wasn't until very recently that women were allowed to have credit cards. The feminist movement is responsible for giving us so many of the rights we take for granted today and then just saying "I'm not a feminist" sounds so incredibly backwards to me. I don't feel like there is this great cutting edge thing that I wanted to make. This is the most basic thing. Bodies are just -- bodies. Almost every woman I know, also, has body issues and issues with food. These are super basic, bottom line things.
As far as the sixties go, I don't know what things were like back then, or what kind of impact that sort of art was having back then. But I feel like the impact my art is having today is probably kind of similar. People have similarly warped views about gender and women's bodies. There have been complaints from people who are at the forefront of gender studies. The hardcore academics have been very supportive of the show. I think they understand the journey that we took to get where we are. But the people who are more armchair feminists -- people who took some classes in undergrad and feel up on feminist theory -- a lot of them got really angry about the show because it was so behind the times. They were like, "We've already done that, we're past that, I've seen that before." Actually, I've never seen it. When I was a little girl, whatever happened in the sixties, I did not grow up with empowering images of women. I grew up with Barbie, I grew up with mainstream television. I feel like the show probably has more in common with sixties performance art than I wish it did.
Was there any particular reaction to the show that surprised you, positive or negative?
I have to say I was a little bit surprised at how blown away the audience members were. I come from a performance art background and the show is a celebration. We were exploring the concept of joy. It's supposed to be fun. We're trying to make feminism fun and joyous and I thought it was just going to be a good time. But there were people who were completely shattered by the show. There was one middle aged Indian woman who came because her daughter's class came and she wept through the whole show. After she said, "I've never seen women with so little shame." I was not expecting people to be that blown away by such a basic thing as just seeing diverse female coded bodies on stage being powerful and strong. In my mind that shouldn't have been such a mind-blowing thing. But it is to a lot of people.
Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company's "Untitled Feminist Show" runs from Thursday, January 30 until Saturday, February 1, at 8 PM, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco.