In the days of a life-destroying virus, it seems perverse to stage a production titled We’re Gonna Die. Yet Theatre Y bravely undertakes this work, a one-woman play by Young Jean Lee, in a visually intriguing and very unstage-y way. The result is a theater piece on film that sometimes resembles a set of still lifes and at other times, the contents of your grandmother’s treasure chest.
Yes, death is inevitable but we might as well sing and tell stories about it. That’s the premise of this filmed work created over the last six months by a team of Theatre Y artists guided by director Héctor Álvarez. Previous productions of We’re Gonna Die in New York and Chicago have been cabaret style rock concert/storytelling events. When Álvarez took the play to Melissa Lorraine, Theatre Y’s artistic director, in March with the pandemic on the near horizon, they knew a different approach to performance would be necessary.
The play-as-film is visually a series of tableaus of familiar objects, along with animation and shadow puppetry—all significant to the stories told and songs sung by The Singer (Emily Bragg), who performs as voice-over until she appears near the end of the production. Music is provided by a seven-piece band. Even the opening credits are shown against tableaus relevant to each artist’s work.
The Singer tells stories about her lonely Uncle John, about her 6-year-old self learning to ride a bike with friends Emily and Jenny, which turns into a friendship trauma. This story is followed by a relatively soothing “Lullaby for the Miserable,” which should be enough to keep you awake. Then The Singer finds a white hair on her youthful head, which is dramatized with the song “When You Get Old.”
The Singer tells other stories, most movingly the story of her father’s illness and the family’s efforts to get him into a clinical trial for his advanced lung cancer. After yet another tragic event, we’re soothed by the song, “Horrible Things.”
“I don’t know what you’re going through / But I know what it’s like to want to die / When life insists on going on / That’s when I sing a little song / That makes me feel a little better / Just a little / Not a lot.”
The Singer acknowledges that life can bring terrible things but it’s not a big profound revelation. It’s just something that can happen to anyone. And that brings a bit of comfort. Because:
“I’m gonna die / I’m gonna die some day / Then I’ll be gone / And it’ll be all right.”
Bragg has a lovely, sweet singing voice and tells these heart-breaking stories in a calm, soothing way. The sound design by Kimberly A. Sutton creates a dramatic tapestry for the music composed by Kyle Gregory Price and performed by the band made up of pedal steel, harpsichord, cello, guitar, piano, oboe and percussion. Price, the percussionist, also does backing vocals.
We’re Gonna Die was filmed by Justin T. Jones, edited by Kevin Hurley, with musical arrangements and stop-motion animation by Price, and costumes by Rebecca Hinsdale.
The visual style of We’re Gonna Die is somewhat reminiscent of Manual Cinema with its tableaus, shadow puppets, animation and retro tech (here as cassette tape recorders). But Manual Cinema always includes live elements as well. And Theatre Y deserves credit for reinventing Lee’s script in this engaging production.
Young Jean Lee is a Korean-American playwright and an experimental writer. Each of her works that I have reviewed are sui generis in their form and message, such as Straight White Men and The Shipment. Her band, Future Wife, released their debut album, We’re Gonna Die, in 2013.
We’re Gonna Die runs an hour and is followed each night by a talkback with members of cast and crew. The evening begins and ends on a Zoom screen with the film on Vimeo.
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