‘untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’: An Interview with Playwright Kimber Lee
BY THE SPILL
Sponsored by Young Vic
In this exclusive interview, we explore the creative mind of Kimber Lee, the brilliant playwright behind the thought-provoking and humour-infused production 'untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play'. This innovative work challenges stereotypes and colonial narratives, providing a fresh perspective on issues surrounding representation and identity. We chatted about the origins of the play, Kimber Lee's creative process, and the collaboration with director Roy Alexander Weise, as well as the profound personal meaning behind 'untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play'.
A dive into the driving forces of a playwright's artistic journey, and the impact of storytelling in today's world.
- Thank you for doing this interview with us! Please tell us about yourself, and what led you to writing ‘untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’.
Thanks for the invitation to chat! I'm a playwright based in New York City and this production is my first one in the UK, and I'm frickin' delighted. For real. I love the time I've spent in the UK while working on the show. Your Tube stations are so clean compared to NYC subways, Meal Deals at Sainsburys - so good! And working with our incredibly talented creative team on this play, the designers, actors, and running crew all led by Roy Alexander Weise has been an entirely wonderful experience. Getting to come back for the London leg of the run and see everyone again is such a gift.
I started working in theatre as an actor, which I loved but the types of roles available to me as an Asian American woman were super limited at that time - you know, ‘Scribe #2’ shuffling in "My lord, you sent for me?”. I got really good at being a person who could come on, deliver a full character in two or three lines, and be out - which takes some skill but isn't exactly artistically fulfilling after a while. So I started writing as a way to stretch and flex my full range of creative expression, my full voice, and eventually found my way into this playwriting life.
I wrote the first 30 pages of ‘untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’ after seeing the 2017 Broadway revival of ‘Miss Saigon’ - which I had never seen in person, in its entirety. That was a super intense and weird experience. But seeing those racial stereotypes and misogynist images and ideas trotted out so brazenly on stage also became a clarifying moment, it distilled into sharp focus so many of my experiences as an East Asian American woman growing up in the U.S. It was extremely disturbing and painful, and yes, rage-inducing (much has already been written about my rage in the British press) and although these aren't easy places from which to create, I believe that rage, especially from a woman, can be a clarifying fire. And my personal quirk is that my rage works itself out as comedy - humour is one of my primary tools for dealing with pain. The play is built as a hilarious roller coaster ride through these iconic and racist stories from various time periods that continue to circulate and replicate themselves, these ridiculous representations of East Asian/Southeast Asian women and men that are embedded in so many aspects of our Western culture.
It's not a reductive cage fight with ‘Miss Saigon’, though I understand why people might assume that if they've never seen the show - I mean, I’m aware I wrote THAT title... But ‘Miss Saigon’ is only one moment in this vast timeline of colonised narratives, its origins stretch back through a much older and deeper legacy of repeating images.
- What does your work centre around, what themes do you explore and why?
I don't overtly set out to write about any particular theme, I just tackle whatever comes up in my life: personal questions that trouble me, things I find to be fascinating and hilarious and beautiful, things that break my heart. Every play I write exists in a world of its own in style or form, according to what that particular story needs, and I think this is true of a lot of writers - as the great Stephen Sondheim said, “form follows content”. So my plays arise from the question or series of questions I'm circling - the only real "rule" is that whatever it is that grips me, it has to be strong enough to keep that spark burning through the amount of time it will take to actually write the thing and nurture it through development. That's the test. Am I urgently curious enough to get my butt in the chair and do the work?
- Has the process been different this time around with ‘untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’?
The writing process has been the same in that it was very different from every other play I've written. This is the way of things for me, and for most of my playwright friends - there might be aspects of writing itself that remain, but the whole process is different for every play I write. Every time I start a new one, it feels like I forgot how to write plays. Such is life. Sometimes I forget other things I've already done, like how to hard-boil an egg. But you know - we google, we learn anew, we move on.
- Please describe ‘untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play’ in 3 words!
- How have you been working together with Roy Alexander Weise to bring the play to life?
I actually met Roy by chance in the summer of 2019 at a new play development retreat in the U.S. called the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference. This was well before I found out that I was even shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize International Award, so when Roy and I met again in November of that same year at the Bruntwood ceremony at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, it all seemed weirdly fated. I have this vivid memory of being at the Bruntwood welcome breakfast, munching on cantaloupe and grinning with Roy "Can you believe this -- how are we here together right now??"
And he has been the most incredible collaborator, especially given how long our road has been through the pandemic and all. He has really championed this play through all the ups and downs of the last few years. His relentless faith in the writing and what it's trying to do in the world has been so crucial. Our vibe is wonderful, we have a similar sense of humour, which is not only crucial for delivering the play in production, but has meant that our process has been full of all-out, belly-shaking laughing from day one, which is the best way to work. He's absolutely wonderful - a brilliant directorial mind, sterling artistic instincts, solid gold human being. The way he sees space, and understands rhythm, the way he runs a rigorous and joyful rehearsal room? The best. I can't say enough. Have I said enough? I could go on and on and on…
- What does the play mean to you?
I'm not sure I'm able to answer fully at this moment, from this vantage point in time, but the play is deeply, painfully personal for me. Which may seem odd because again, the play is such a bright, fast-paced comedy that trades in vast amounts of silliness - but the underground river that carries all that buoyant laughter is a long history of painful personal experiences. So for me, the absolutely crucial piece of that is for the play to bring us through the whirlwind in good faith: we go with Kim through the maze, and at the end somehow, there is love. Maybe not even resolution, and definitely not pat answers, but there is love. In this world that heaves daily with profound unprocessed pain, in this play that tells a story of searing dislocation and loss, I felt a particular responsibility to bring some type of hope at the end. Nothing cheaply tidy or simplistic, but bringing the journey to a narrative close with a moment that feels like a window cracked open to the sun in a dark suffocating room.
- What are the main takeaways you would like the audience to get from seeing the play?
Every audience member's experience is their own business, but I do have hope they will be game to jump on the rollercoaster ride we've built for them. The most delightful part of being a playwright is watching people come into first contact with the ride you've constructed with them in mind, seeing how they discover pockets of surprise, or joy, or heart-wrench. And everyone is invited to the party - come as you are! Jump on in and ride with us, see where the evening takes you. I mean, honestly: these actors, this cast? They are hilarious and charming and talented, so the ride will be a pretty fun one at the very least.
- Anything else you would like our readers to know?
We don't have Meal Deals in NYC, at least not like Sainsburys. This is a grave injustice, and I seem to be thinking about it a lot, so maybe I'll be writing about that next.
“untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play” is at the Young Vic Theatre, London from 18 September - 4 November. Co-produced by Royal Exchange Theatre, Factory International for Manchester International Festival, Young Vic Theatre and Headlong. More information on www.youngvic.org
Image credit: The Young Vic