San Diego

Pres. Trump Rally, Father's Economic Displacement, Shaped JC Lee's World Premiere Play “What You Are”

JC Lee's "What You Are" tackles issues of race, masculinity, economic displacement and social media: all difficult and relevant topics in today's society.

Here's the scene: It's 2016, the heat of the 2016 Presidential Election. Playwright JC Lee is in Europe at the time and he turns on his TV. 

Now-President Donald Trump is speaking at a rally. 

Lee, a writer known for his work on "How to Get Away with Murder" and "Girls," is immediately mesmerized by the speech. Hypnotized, almost, he recalled. 

"I was taken by the power of what he was saying and the power it had over those who were listening to him," Lee said in a phone interview with NBC 7 San Diego.

Lee's Globe-commissioned play "What You Are" was born -- in part -- out of that moment: the desire to understand that attraction and that power. 

At the same time, though, another event happened that inspired the play: Lee's father lost his job. He had been replaced by a computer. The playwright still remembers the terrifying call from his father.

"He said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do now,'" Lee recalled. His father didn't know what he would do next. 

"I set out to try and understand that fear in men of a certain age in our society," Lee said. "And I think that's where the play came from." 

A Full-Circle Moment
When Lee was in graduate school, one of his plays, "Luce," received a reading at The Old Globe. Lincoln Center Theater later gave the piece its world premiere. 

That's when Barry Edelstein, the Globe's Artistic Director, approached Lee about writing a new piece just for the Globe: a commissioned play. 

Over the years, Edelstein and Lee spoke frequently about the topic of the play as he wrote. 

Cut to several years later. 

The film adapation of "Luce," starring Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts, was being screened in San Diego at the San Diego International Film Festival during the same time rehearsals for "What You Are" - the play he got because of "Luce" the play. 

"It was a nice little full circle moment for me, artistically," Lee said. 

Telling a Story for Today
During the back-and-forth about "What You Are," the topic of audiences came up. 

"I think they said to me, 'our audience is a little bit more conservative than the typical regional theater audience,'" Lee recalled. 

That presented an exciting and somewhat rare opportunity for the up-and-coming playwright: he could have a conversation with a group of people who may have different perspectives and experiences. 

"I'm not interested in preaching to people," Lee said. "I'm not interested in trying to convince them that they're wrong or I'm right. I'm interested in having a conversation with people." 

"What You Are" tackles issues of race, masculinity, economic displacement and social media: all difficult and relevant topics in today's society.

But first and foremost, Lee said, he wants audiences to be entertained. The playwright says he tends to write from a self-reflective place; he wants his work to inspire that same self-reflection in others. 

"Beyond that, I am just hopefully that people spark to the ideas and find themselves feeling conflicted about various parts of the play," Lee said. "And then hopefully that encourages them to have conversations with each other and with themselves." 

Oh, and a little bit of humor, too, Lee added. For him, humor is one of the best ways to tell a challenging story. 

"Humor is how we disarm ourselves, we disarm each other and how we find our common humanity" Lee explained. 

"Life is stressful," Lee added. "It's nice to sit in a room and laugh together."

"What You Are" runs through June 30 at The Old Globe. The play is directed Patricia McGregor. Buy tickets here.  

Contact Us