By Young Jean Lee; Directed and Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly
Produced by Second Stage
Off Broadway, Play with music
Ran through 3.12.20
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 3.9.20
Janelle McDermoth and the company of We're Gonna Die.
BOTTOM LINE: Who knew horrible things could be so joyous.
I am not an emotional theatergoer. Young Jean Lee’s bizarre but banal We’re Gonna Die makes me sob—heaving, ugly sobbing that is not cute or appropriate as we battle to not touch our faces during the apparent Coronavirus Apocalypse. The uneasiness of these times is palpable in these vast public spaces.
Lee, once the doll of downtown and now, thanks to Second Stage, a goddamn Broadway playwright—the first Asian American woman to achieve that distinction—is still experimenting. This work is really a solo piece featuring a band for musical interjections, though I’d hardly call it a musical. The music here feels like little reminders, messages inside our head we repeat like the voice on some meditation tape: You got this. Keep going.
This is a "premiere," but only in the way that this term is given to major Off-Broadway productions of work that the artist has been developing for years. Lee used to perform the work herself in New York cabarets after being given the task to write a play that scared her the most; this personal monologue about her pain, featuring herself as the front-person of a band, did just the trick.
Before I became the jaded unemotional theatergoer that writes this before you, We’re Gonna Die was one of the first things I saw after moving to New York. I chased an ultimately unrequited love here, escaping a family in turmoil. Both of my stories have bizarre similarities with the monologue constructed by Lee. And, though you are very different from me and I am very different from Lee, we are all the same in that we are all not special. We all can find ourselves in stories of the horrible things that happen all the time. Who do we think we are to be immune from tragedy?
This is her play. This is our play.
Director-choreographer Raja Feather Kelly has transformed the work into something wholly new. We have left the cabaret space and entered the theater. David Zinn's set locates us in a hospital waiting room with a buzzing vending machine and row of plastic chairs. But Kelly gives us magic with a massive spiral staircase (to take us to Jesus?), a booming preshow soundtrack, and a neon sign emblazoned with the show's title that floats along the front of the stage. Now it does feel special in a way that works less.
Lee’s story is now told by Janelle McDermoth. She's a gem, charming to a fault and quick with the emotional moments. She is also a damn good singer. The role feels less average than it did in Lee’s hands. There was something powerful in the average. Something was behind the levity of the sadness that made the show pure and gut-wrenching.
With this production I wept for the memory of what once was. Which I suppose feels right in a show that celebrates the pain of reflections of the past. We are, after all, all going to die. We need to be ok with that. Kelly celebrates that macabre sentiment with an explosive dance sequence featuring streamers, a light show, and balloons released from the ceiling.
You exit the theater, holding a balloon on your way to the train. The dirty train. Cough into your arm. Wear a mask if you're sick already but maybe not. Don’t touch the pole. Wear gloves. Whisk yourself to turbulent sleep on a thimble of NyQuil. We. Are. Going, To. Die.
(We’re Gonna Die played at Second Stage, Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street through March 12, 2020. The running time was 60 minutes with no intermission. More information is available at 2st.com.)
We’re Gonna Die is by Young Jean Lee. Directed and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. Original Music is by Lee and Tim Simmonds. Additional Music by John-Michael Lyles. Orchestrations are by Cian McCarthy. Scenic Design is by David Zinn. Costume Design is by Naoko Nagata. Lighting Design is by Tuce Yasak. Sound Design is by Jason Crystal. Production Stage Manager is John C. Moore.
The cast is Freddy Hall, Janelle McDermoth, Kevin Ramessar, Ximone Rose, Debbie Christine Tjong, and Marques Walls.