Playwrights Crossing: Young Jean Lee, Kimber Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Writing Across Race Lines

by Kate Kremer

in National Conference

Post image for Playwrights Crossing:  Young Jean Lee, Kimber Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Writing Across Race Lines

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment (2008), Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) (2014), and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Appropriate (2013) all constitute border crossings of a very particular kind: they are plays in which a playwright imagines and gives life to characters of another race.

This in itself is not remarkable—playwrights write characters of different races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, sexualities, beliefs, and histories than their own all the time. Indeed this is some part of the work of a playwright—to observe and to reflect a variegated world, to represent a textured and diverse experience.

But these three plays are remarkable not so much for the fact that their authors effect this crossing than that they take their own border crossings as a trope and theme, a way of making other borders and border crossings within the works at once more visible and less stable—whether they are borders between white and black, audience and performer, life and death, belonging and isolation or what we own and what we take.

In The Shipment, Young Jean Lee thematizes the act of her border crossing—as a Korean American woman representing African American characters—by making the nuances, expectations, and pitfalls of that act of representation more visible. Lee challenges the conscious and unconscious racial biases of her audiences through her exploration of the American history of minstrelsy. By playing back and forth across accustomed theatrical boundaries of audience/performer, sincerity/satire, natural/abstract, and stereotype/rounded psychological character, Lee destabilizes her audiences’ notions of appropriate responses to the performance.

The first half of the play functions as a kind of minstrel show highlighting the roles that contemporary black performers are expected to play. The show includes a dance piece, a stand-up routine, and a Brechtian melodrama featuring gangsters, drug runners, crack whores, and aspiring rappers—roles that her actors are typically cast in. But all of these stereotypical performance pieces are disrupted and estranged, so that the usual or accustomed responses are disallowed.

For instance: the catchy music and exuberance of the opening dance set are infectious, but as the dance goes on, it becomes clear that the wild, loose movements and slapstick humor of the piece are citations of vaudevillian minstrel acts—a realization that complicates and curtails the initial amusement and pleasure.

The stand-up section that follows likewise crosses back and forth across the border between engagement and critique—between the amusement that one expects and a seriousness that emerges from sudden flashes of self-consciousness. There is a continuous vacillation between tones—between the broad mockery that allows the audience to feel included, and to laugh at racist white people, and the quieter, subtler, and more private mockery that takes place as often as not between the lines, in the pauses wherein the actor gauges and evaluates the audience’s response—and turns a mirror toward it.

In the final section of the first act, we see black actors playing highly stereotypical roles—but their deliveries have a kind of flat affect and their gestures are stylized or abstracted in such a way that the act of representation is foregrounded. It is TV melodrama a la Brecht: the audience sees black actors play black stereotypes, but unconvincingly, in broad strokes. It is like seeing black actors wearing blackface: an artificiality that announces that the performance of blackness and not blackness is the subject of the show. The first act ends with the actors gazing out upon an audience that in that moment of quiet confrontation must consider their responses to what came before.

For the second half of the play, Lee asked her actors what kind of roles they had always wanted to play and wrote a naturalistic play to honor their requests. Watching it, we think at first that we have left the border behind, that the play is no longer “about” this vexing question of race and the boundaries between audience and performer, expectation and stereotype—but our discovery in the final moments of the play gives one further twist to the trope of the minstrel show and the person who crosses a racial border to represent blackness: the characters that we assumed were black are not. It’s a discovery that sheds light on the deep-seated assumptions that inform our interpretations of performance, in spite of all our cries of color-blindness—the assumption that race is after all real, that black is finally black.

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Although like Young Jean Lee, Kimber Lee is a Korean American woman writing a play featuring predominantly African American characters, in brownsville song (b-side for tray), which premiered this year at Humana, she effects a very different kind of crossing.

Whereas Young Jean Lee uses her own act of writing across racial lines to dissect and destabilize the relationship between her audience and the idea of blackness, Kimber Lee, inspired by a brief blog post about the death of a young man in her neighborhood, wrote brownsville in an effort to give life to a young man who was denied it, first by the fact of his murder and then by the lack of mainstream media coverage that followed—as if his life meant nothing.

The play begins with Lena, an African-American woman who lives in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, whose grandson Tray has been shot in a senseless altercation. Over the course of her opening speech, Lena honors, mourns, and remembers her grandson—and implores us not to begin with her. “You don’t want to start with me,” she tells us. “Begin with Tray. Know Tray. Celebrate Tray.”

And so we begin again, this time with Tray trying to write a personal essay for a college scholarship application while Lena works out to an aeerobics video and goads him on from the other room. Tray finally escapes to the boxing gym, where he meets a young Asian American woman, Merrill, who is going to be his tutor. We later discover Merrill is also the mother of Tray’s little sister, and who, years before, had abandoned her daughter beside a dumpster.

If The Shipment shines a bright light on the borders that divide us and which we’d like not to think about, brownsville song elides and breaks down the borders that we tend to hold dear. The first of these is the border we draw between family and other. For while Lena rejects Merrill and refuses to allow her back into her family, Tray continues meet and talk with her, and begins to believe that she has changed. “She’s not my blood,” Lena tells Tray when he urges her to give Merrill a second chance. “How you gonna sort out your blood,” he asks her. “She’s Devine’s blood, and we’re Devine’s blood—how you gonna draw the line?” The women reconcile in the days after Tray’s murder, when Devine follows Tray’s ghost to the café where her mother works and Merrill takes her home—to Lena.

The second border that the play crosses is the “border” of Tray’s death, the moment that marks the difference between the “before” of his life and the “after” of his family’s grieving. By eliding the moment of Tray’s murder, which was so small a part of his life and was indeed nothing of who he was, Lee denies the sensationalistic impulse to view a human being through the lens of the moment in which he ceased to be. And by moving fluidly back and forth across a dividing line which itself remains invisible, Lee has created a play that is wholeheartedly a celebration of a young man’s life and the community of which he was the linchpin and center.

Lee’s ready ear and heart allow her to write into a racial community to which she does not “belong” (although she too lives in Brownsville, and she, like Tray, is a boxer). And her intensely elegant and poignant awareness of grief as an organ of memory allows her to write across a further border—to rise above the fact of murder to tell the story of how fully life can and must be lived.

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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, which premiered at Humana in 2013, is a very different kind of family play than brownsville song, drawing as it does upon along legacy of plays about American families in the midst of cataclysm—from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire to Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to Tracy Letts’ August Osage County—all of which, Jacobs-Jenkins noted, were in essence about race. This may not be ultimately as surprising as it seems—for when we talk about family we are talking about blood and about belonging.

Appropriate may be more akin to The Shipment than to brownsville song in that it is less interested in the particular members of a specific family than it is the generic members of an American family—Jacobs-Jenkins is dealing in types, and he is interested in the ways in which the racial undertones that have informed and shaped those types in the American literary imagination can be drawn out and brought to the surface. Those undertones are indeed brought to the surface upon the discovery of an album—apparently belonging to the dead patriarch—of photographs of black people with broken necks.

Jacobs-Jenkins has said that in Appropriate, he set out to make race as invisible as possible—an intention that emerged partly in response to his observation that black playwrights are expected to write about race, whereas white playwrights can take up or cast off the burden as they choose. But the statement is perhaps misleading—for what he has created instead is a play that posits the notion that questions of family, money, and belonging in U.S. American culture are also questions of race.

In Appropriate, Jacobs-Jenkins plays with the range of meanings his title invokes—a value scale running from  “suitable or fitting” and “belonging to” to what seems to be their opposite, “to take without permission, expropriate” and “to steal.”

The mutability of the title announces the porosity and instability of the boundary that Jacobs-Jenkins is himself crossing in writing the play: in one sense, he is “appropriating” or taking on without permission the voices of eight white characters; but in doing so he is giving voice to the (black) ghosts that “belonged to” or were “expropriated by” the family of those characters. Through his expropriation, Jacobs-Jenkins gives the lie to their ownership and shows that the boundaries of belonging are very often false—that they are often in their definition a transgression and so in some sense are defined to be transgressed.


Kate Kremer is a playwright, translator, and dramaturge. Plays include Opera of the Telephone at DelphiTune for an Upperground Country, and Blue Mountain Prohibition, a translation/adaptation of Alejandro Casona’s Prohibido suicidarse en primavera (“Suicide prohibited in spring”). Fiction has appeared in Red Branch Journal and Every Day A Century. Nonfiction has been featured in Encore MagazineThe Stranger, the Kenyon Reviewblog, the Seattle Repertory Theatre blog and the Remy Bumppo Field Guide. She is writing an ongoing blog series for HowlRound on the new avant-garde

  • Kate Kremer

    A couple of corrections to this blog post:

    Although Kimber Lee lived in Brooklyn, she did not live in Brownsville.

    Quotes from The Shipment are based on the Oct. 3 2009 performance at On the Boards in Seattle, WA (http://www.ontheboards.tv/performance/theater/the-shipment#about)

    Quotes from brownsville song (b-side for tray) are not verbatim but are based on the April 2014 performance of the piece at Humana.

    All the readings above are my own, and not based on conversations with the playwrights!

  • Sue

    Hi :) I enjoyed your analysis of the plays.

    Just quick questions:
    Can you explain the last paragraph about the play “Appropriate”?
    I’m little confused by “giving voice to the (black) ghosts”.. Did you mean that discovery of lynching pictures is giving voices to them?

    Also, the concept of “boundaries of belonging” with transgression.

    Thank you so much! :D