Playwright strips topic of feminism bare in new work

By Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul - The word "feminist" hauls a lot of baggage nowadays. It can draw every kind of reaction from unquestioning acceptance to eye-rolling, from immediate understanding to boiling anger.

Playwright Young Jean Lee is tapping into all these emotions in her latest work, "Untitled Feminist Show," which gets its world premiere Thursday evening as part of the Walker Art Center's Out There series. "Untitled Feminist Show" features six women who perform the entire piece in the nude.

Lee said she approached the work the same way she does all her pieces.

"My jumping-off point for all my shows is like "What's the worst idea I can think of?' or like, 'What's the last show in the world I would want to make?' And then I force myself to make that show," Lee said. "Feminism — when I first had the idea for the show — really did seem like a dirty word."

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Lee admits feminism is a loaded term.

"It's gone through this phase of people not wanting to be identified with it," Lee said. "And seeing it as this '60s hairy armpit kind of thing."

When Lee convened a group of performers just to kick around ideas, it turned into a marathon sessions where they talked for six hours daily for a month. And they kept returning to one basic issue.

"One of the big problems for us was the fact that because you are born with a certain type of biological body, it kind of dictates what is OK, how it's OK for you to be," Lee said.

What would it be like, the group wondered, to have a world where that didn't happen?

"The show is basically that," she said. "What that looks like."

It's actually kind of mind-bending. Lee said while some people claim to have freed themselves from gender expectations, it's very hard to do. She recounts the story of a male friend who found himself inexplicably enraged when on the subway a man sitting near him pulled out some wool and started knitting.

Creating a show about this is easier said than done. An early realization was that clothing, any clothing, could be sexualized.

"Actually the least titillating thing seemed to be just to have them nude," Lee said. "Their hair's not styled, they're not wearing makeup. They are just who they are."

They began developing dances and Lee wrote a script about women debating feminism and gender roles while nude dancers performed around them. It was funny, but Lee said it didn't work. The audience got caught up and sometimes angered by the debate, Lee said. She realized it was actually the way some people dealt when confronted with half-a-dozen naked people on stage. So Lee removed the words.

"The avoidance technique was to latch onto the text." Lee said. "And once we took that out, people were left in this very emotional and intense place."

Audiences in workshops seemed to quickly forget about the performers' lack of costumes, while becoming engrossed in them as human beings exploring ideas, Lee found.

For an acclaimed playwright such as Lee to dispense with words is both brave and provocative, said Phillip Bither, performing arts curator for the Walker.

"Young Jean Lee asks very tough questions," he said. "She asks tough questions of her performers, her audience, her art form — which is really theater and the society at large."

Lee drew her cast from various parts of the New York performance scene. There's a burlesque artist, an actor, some contemporary dancers. They represent all different shapes, sizes, and viewpoints, including on performing naked.

"I mean for some of them it is a huge deal for them to be taking off their clothes publicly. For some of them they do it in almost every show they do, so it doesn't matter to them at all and there is no bravery required," Lee said. "For other performers the nudity is not an issue, but the not having hair and make-up, that's the terrifying thing."

In workshop performances, Lee has seen a wide range of audience reactions from laughter to tears. Some people just shut down, Lee said, but then contact her a week later saying they want to talk about what they have seen. She is eager to see what Twin Cities audiences make of the piece.

Lee describes "Untitled Feminist Show" as the most difficult play she has ever done. However, she also says now when she walks down the street, she looks at the women around her in a very different way.