Deborah Cullinan and Marc Bamuthi Joseph talk creative ecosystems and Young Jean Lee's 'Untitled Feminist Show'
THEATER It takes a playwright of particular boldness to forgo text entirely in deference to movement and music. But in addition to the formal choices made in her Untitled Feminist Show, eminent New York downtown theater maker Young Jean Lee also pursues a theme (flagged by her "un-title") that stubbornly remains as controversial as ever: the politics and pleasures of female empowerment. This theme plays out starkly, without clothes and without shame, over the course of an hour-long romp that will make its Bay Area premiere this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Conceived and directed by Lee, with choreography by Faye Driscoll (another prominent New York artist whose You're Me ran at CounterPULSE last March), Untitled Feminist Show is just one of the latest of Lee's willfully provocative, consistently witty pieces. She and her Young Jean Lee's Theater Company have made a national reputation by reaching for the most uncomfortable subjects, producing a set of humorous, audacious, experimental plays about race, sex, family, religion — great taboo regions normally shrouded in prickly mythology, limited by official debate, or otherwise smothered by good intentions.
Her works include Straight White Men, an exploration of success in contemporary American society; The Shipment, her "black-identity politics show"; Church, investigating American-brand Christianity through the structure of a church service; and the fierce, zany, and dis-Orienting Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (produced locally by Crowded Fire in 2011) in which, drawing on her own Korean American roots, the fractured perspectives and sacrosanct traditions of an American minority serve a master narrative about a young white couple's banal relationship.
YBCA's presentation of Untitled Feminist Show comes, not coincidentally, as the organization transitions under its new leadership. Deborah Cullinan, who succeeded Ken Foster as YBCA's executive director in September, was the longtime executive director of Intersection for the Arts. She has a well-deserved reputation for turning that esteemed arts organization around from hard times after she took over in 1996. YBCA's director of performing arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, was a successful Oakland-based artist and activist when he took over from Angela Mattox (now running PICA in Portland) in 2012.
As longtime associates in the local arts scene, both of whom have been exceptionally community-oriented advocates for the arts, Cullinan and Joseph together promise a bold redrawing of the lines at YBCA. They recently sat down to speak with me about the vision they share for a 21st century arts organization — including the development of something they call the creative ecosystem — and where the work of an artist like Young Jean Lee fits into it.
SF Bay Guardian How are you settling in, after a couple of months and a couple of years now, respectively? And what are these creative ecosystems?
Deborah Cullinan Where I'm at: I'm still listening, learning—frankly a little astonished. I was, what, three blocks away? And my predecessor Ken Foster was one of my closest work friends; Bamuthi another one. I had no idea how much goes on here. It's just abundant. The creative ecosystem is something Marc dreamed up, and certainly wooed me with. It's something the two of us, and everybody here, considers to be a way we can think about a contemporary arts center in this century.