Arts preview: Young Jean Lee’s “WE’RE GONNA DIE” is actually quite uplifting, despite title

By Columbus Alive
From the October 10, 2013 edition

Death, right? The worst.

Young Jean Lee used to agree, particularly after her father died from a disease that probably would have been cured with an experimental drug. A drug he never received because of a lab error.

Then she did the last thing on earth she wanted to do. She wrote a play about death (“WE’RE GONNA DIE,” which comes to the Wexner Friday and Saturday) and cast herself as the lead performer, singing the play’s many songs, which she also wrote, because, well, the only thing more terrifying than death is public speaking. That’s sort of the way Lee works, though, and she’s become known for this approach.

“I always ask myself [before writing a new play] what’s the last thing in the world I want to do,” Lee said during a recent phone interview from New York City.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Lee grew to accept life’s inevitable conclusion and her own cathartic release translated into her most successful play yet, at least from an audience-reaction perspective (though critics ranging from the New York Times to the Village Voice have agreed, calling Lee the most adventurous and promising new playwright in the Big Apple).

“Every show I make I want to do something to the audience, and with this show I wanted to comfort people,” Lee said. “This was the most successful in that a lot of people were very moved by it and some were very traumatized by it. Some didn’t want to think about the fact they were gonna die, period, especially people who hadn’t experienced any amount of tragedy.”

This emotional ride is made more palatable by the catchy, indie-pop songs that populate it (think Arcade Fire meets Broken Social Scene).

“In music, you can convey incredibly simple ideas and it works in a way it wouldn’t in a play or novel,” Lee explained.

These songs are interspersed with a series of monologues (read on the CD by the likes of David Byrne and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz) about breakups, the masks we wear to hide pain and, of course, death. One story recounts Lee’s father’s death. Another describes a random missed phone call that led a friend to discover her husband’s infidelity and (here’s the kicker) ultimately led to, randomly, a scratched cornea the next morning while she was in the shower.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself why anyone would want to spend a Friday or Saturday night grappling with their own mortality, which, fair enough. Lee understands, and she’d probably counter that potential audience members should consider her approach to writing plays: Go against your natural inclination and you might find something life-affirming in the results.

When the play ends on its typical high note of a full audience shout-along to the refrain “We’re gonna die,” you, too, might find that accepting our end has never been so rewarding. You might even find yourself singing along, “I'm gonna die someday / then I'll be gone / and it'll be OK.”

Lee will also premiere a new play, “Straight White Men,” at the Wexner in spring 2014.