We’re Gonna Die by experimental playwright Young Jean Lee isn’t really a play or a musical. It’s more akin to a cabaret act than anything else. There’s a band with a central performer who sings and tells stories about their life to the audience between the songs. And in fact, when the piece premiered in 2011, it was at Joe’s Pub and was performed by Lee’s band Future Wife with herself in the central performer role.
Ms. Lee is known for challenging herself to write about the thing she most wants to avoid at that moment which should come as no surprise with a piece like We’re Gonna Die. It deals entirely with sad vignettes of isolation, fear, rejection and death and how we cope with these events, survive them and even find comfort despite them. A note at the beginning of the script says that all the stories are true although not all of them happened to Lee herself.
Which is a critical question about this Second Stage Theater production of this piece. Why has it been revived at this point with this cast? Above all else, We’re Gonna Die feels like a passion project that was created out of a real need to convey comfort in the face of profound distress. In this iteration, directed and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly whose work in Fairview, Hurricane Diane and A Strange Loop much admired, we seem to be in a waiting room that has a spiral staircase that leads both up and down. Heaven and hell, anyone? There is a vending machine in one corner. There is a pale lavender light that casts an otherworldly glow over the proceedings. Musical instruments and mikes are pre-set as the band (Ximone Rose, Debbie Christine Tjong, Kevin Ramessar, Freddy Hall and Marquess Walls) filters in and sits down. Then the Singer (Janelle McDermoth) arrives and pulls out a wireless mike and starts to talk to the audience and sing and the band plays. Single balloons fall from the ceiling in one corner periodically throughout the entire show until there is a pile in that corner. Which is pretty much the format of the whole piece until the end when the band steps out from behind their instruments and goes into a wild and joyous dance to the last song “We’re Gonna Die.”
Using an ambiguous setting that isn’t ever resolved keeps us guessing as to who is talking to us and why. It never allows us to feel like the person speaking to us is genuine and has something they need to communicate. Janelle McDermoth is charming and vivacious, an excellent singer and dancer and an expressive actress. But she could not breech the uneasiness and distance created by the unexplained setting. I walked away longing to see the original version with Young Jean Lee on the tiny Joe’s Pub stage crammed in with the band. I wanted the immediacy, passion and transparency of belief - I wanted to feel the hug, not just the representation of the hug from the playwright.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Of all the antagonists the theater has thrown at us over the centuries — the bloodthirsty royals, the cannibal barbers — death is the most formidable, if also the most dramatically inert. How can everyone’s end be anyone’s turning point? If certainty were as exciting as its opposite, Waiting for Godot would be Godot’s Here, On Time as Usual. The inevitability of death is thus an almost-inevitable theme for Young Jean Lee, the downtown disrupter lately making an uptown turn. Like a lot of her work, the strangely pleasant We're Gonna Die, which opened on Tuesday night at Second Stage Theater, ought to be untenable. Yet it finds ways to make an unswallowable premise go down easy."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"The show’s simplicity is its greatest innovation; its rejection of traditional notions of character and plot is of a piece with its general skepticism about the life-and-death narratives we tell ourselves. Eschewing the “Death is not the end!” worldview that some religions espouse, We’re Gonna Die is in no way sentimental, but it’s full of earnest emotion. As our guide and avatar, McDermoth is charming and sounds great, and the band behind her gets our blood pumping even when our hearts are breaking. Death will come for us all, sure, but for an hour or so this show provides a cause for celebration."
Regina Robbins for Time Out New York
"Lee has a very upbeat attitude toward death. Throughout the show, balloons fall from the rafters like sands through an hourglass. We’re Gonna Die is about death, yes, but it’s also about life and overcoming and other subjects suitable for a greeting card."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap