Firsts

Young Jean Lee

First Asian-American woman to write a play produced on Broadway

‘We are filling this house night after night.’

Growing up in eastern Washington, the town I lived in was predominantly white, and I had a really hard time fitting in. I remember my parents taking me to our town’s little summer stock theater. As a kid, every play that I went to was like the best piece of theater I had ever seen in my life. Every single thing was magical. But when I tried to join my school’s drama club, I talked to the drama teacher about it and he said, “Well, we’re doing Oklahoma! And there are no Asians in Oklahoma!” That’s probably a big part of the reason why I didn’t start theater practice until I was 28 or 29 years old. I got this idea in my head that theater practice wasn’t for me.

After college, I was so unhappy in grad school studying for my English Ph.D., I went to see a therapist. She said, “I’m going to ask you a question. I want you to answer it off the top of your head. What do you want to do with your life?” And I said, “I want to be a playwright.” And that thought had never occurred to me before.

I started by just reading a bunch of contemporary plays, and the ones that I was the most drawn to were the sort of wildest, most imaginative plays, and those tended to be written by the more experimental playwrights. I was very, very fortunate that what I was attracted to was this world of experimental theater, because when I came on board in 2003, people cared a lot about diversity. When I showed up on the scene as an Asian-American female, people really wanted to support me. If I had come here and said I want to be on Broadway right away, I would have had a much rockier path.

This year, with the debut of Straight White Men, I became the first Asian-American woman to write a play produced on Broadway. Carole Rothman, the artistic director of Second Stage Theatre, just said, “We want to commission you to write a play for Broadway. And, oh, we might also want to do your other play, Straight White Men, too.” There were no hoops to jump through — she just wanted the play. Somebody on staff asked if there had ever been an Asian-American woman on Broadway before. We were all like, “I don’t know.” I know it’s something that I’m supposed to be really excited about, and I am very grateful. But it just seems like a long time — 2018 seems too late to have the first Asian-American female on Broadway, and it’s always made me a little bit sad to think about. But we are filling this house night after night.

My advice for aspiring playwrights would be to practice kindness towards yourself. The biggest obstacle I see in writers’ ways is this critical monster in their heads that tell them what they’re writing isn’t good enough. Be very vigilant against that voice. Absolutely do not beat yourself up.

Lee’s play, Straight White Men, featured Armie Hammer and Josh Charles in a limited run.

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