It may sound perverse to say that one of the great charms of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die is that it will have you first cheering for the song “I’m Gonna Die”—performed by Lee with the band Future Wife—and then singing along with and clapping to the chorus lyric that matches the piece’s title: “We’re gonna die.” But it’s true.
With her other company, Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, Lee is the writer and director of challenging, complex, high-concept theatrical experiments on a regular basis. For her slot with 13P, then—a company created to give its member playwrights the opportunity for a full production of a work that’s riskier than what they might ordinarily get to do—it only makes sense that the risk she takes is directed inward: the non-performer stepping on stage with a backup band, at Joe’s Pub, to perform a quiet, intensely personal cabaret show about sickness, despair, loneliness, and death.
And yet despite moving through a series of life’s most exquisitely painful experiences, from the first childhood realization you’ve been rejected by a friend to the devastating breakup, from the terror of aging to the loss of a parent, We’re Gonna Die is ultimately about moments of comfort, about how we face and learn to grapple with all of these things, and how we find even the smallest amount of solace in the midst of existential dread, grief, and solitude. It’s an oddly uplifting and often wryly humorous journey toward the embrace of the certainty that being human means horrible things will happen; you will grow old, you will die, so will everyone else, and that will be okay.
Plus, the songs (all written and performed by Lee and the band) are seriously catchy.
Beyond the subject matter, the show differs from either your typical autobiographical solo or your average cabaret performance by its rejection of stagy flourishes, or even of theatrical polish. (In fact, I’d even say the show has less of a presentational, staged quality than your typical storytelling event.) Lee is self-conscious, often (endearingly) awkward, and conversational in her delivery. She seems to be genuinely enjoying herself when she sings, but the songs, too, are generally a straightforward way of telling a part of the story rather than a bravura display of virtuosity. Also, the clearly affectionate relationships among the band (especially in one truly goofy, possibly irrelevant, but highly enjoyable dance sequence) add an emotional warmth that helps to balance the bleakness of much of the material.
It’s the simplicity, grounded in a relationship between Lee and the audience, that makes the piece work. Were it more polished, it would probably seem less heartfelt, less sincere, and therefore less effective. One of its dynamics is the shuttling back and forth between the terrible aloneness and the ultimate universality of pain, between our desire to be uniquely impervious to aging and death and our acceptance that our very humanity depends on sharing those experiences. It’s the show’s choosing of ordinariness over “star quality” that makes it work at all.
But of course, because it’s also a Young Jean Lee play, there’s another level. Lee’s claim is that she’s just the “guinea pig,” that the piece is written not as a confessional but as a script to be performed by “any ordinary person.” It’s script, not autobiography, in other words, which creates another set of tensions between the universal and the particular, the specificity of a story and the broader resonance of its meaning. The intimacy deriving from the stripped-down style becomes artistic choice rather than artlessness—but that doesn’t detract, somehow, from the emotional resonance.
And although, if performed by someone else (which I’d really like to see), the piece’s deeply personal stories, which seem to draw their force from Lee’s emotional connection to the material rather than her emotive performance of it, may shift somewhat from anecdote to parable, the purpose is the same: comfort. In that, at least in its current form, We’re Gonna Die succeeds.