As evening approached on Saturday, March 7, 2020, and I was on my way to the theatre, a breaking news alert lit up my cellphone screen. It announced that Gov. Cuomo had declared that, because of the coronavirus epidemic, he was declaring a state of emergency in New York. The show I was headed for was We’re Gonna Die, by Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men), a topical title that, under the circumstances, did little to rev up my anticipation.
The show’s title perfectly reflects its theme, which is that, since we’re all not only headed for oblivion, but will also suffer horrible things during our lifetimes, we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. Right. Oddly, it almost makes its depressing subject enjoyable. Which isn’t to deny I thought it one of the most uncomfortable shows I’ve seen in years.
We’re Gonna Die, which premiered at Joe’s Pub in 2011, and had several subsequent showings starring Lee herself, is a lively 50-minute rock and pop concert. It’s mostly sung by a solo singer, Janelle McDermoth, backed by a five-member hipster band: Ximone Rose (keyboard/percussion), Debbie Christian, Matt Oestreicher (filling in when I attended for Kevin Ramessar as band leader, guitar, keyboard), Hall (guitar), and Marques Walls (drums, percussion). Lee and Tim Simmonds are responsible for the appealing music, which has additional contributions from John-Michael Lyles.
McDermoth, charismatic and vocally terrific, hosts the evening wearing a black leather jacket and miniskirt, with a body-hugging yellow top. Speaking and singing into a hand-held mic, she recounts a series of painful, personal stories involving accidents, illnesses, and death.
Her attitude, regardless of her straightforwardly plain lyrics about suffering—with titles like “Lullaby for the Miserable” and “Horrible Things”—is upbeat, smiling, and friendly. The message she’s conveying is reinforced by a large neon sign fronting the stage, sometimes sliding back and forth, reminding us, “WE’RE GONNA DIE.” What fun.
She and the band perform within a pale, violet-tinted room, designed by David Zinn, of high, concrete-looking walls, its principal features being rows of airport-type plastic seats, a door and windowed-office at one side, and a candy-vending machine in an upstage corner.
Dominating the space is a huge—bigger than any I’ve ever seen—spiral staircase, seemingly screwing itself into a hole in the stage floor and through another hole in the scenic ceiling. Given such an unusual visual unit, it’s seriously disappointing that, aside from a moment when the singer rushes up a few steps, it’s never actually used!
The surrealistic feeling is of a liminal waiting room, a purgatory, perhaps, somewhere between heaven and hell. Four of the musicians, dressed in semi-punk clothes (Naoko Nagata did the costumes) sprinkled with sequins, occupy the seats. The drummer, though, is situated behind the window, as in a broadcasting studio, where we can see him and where his work is muffled by the wall between him and the others. Tuce Yasak does a remarkable job of lighting this weird room with all sorts of unique effects.
On a couple of occasions, a band member will saunter over to the candy machine, put in a coin, and select an item. And, periodically, a balloon floats down onto a growing pile from a space in the ceiling. Are they marking each new death?
As Marshall McLuhan observed, the medium is the message, and here the medium of terrifically engaging, excellently performed, toe-tappingly rhythmic music, played within an otherworldly box, creates a message that makes you feel (or me, at any rate) as if you’re in a futuristic, dystopian, Hunger Games-like world.
I imagined a society where the authorities are preparing the masses for their imminent demise by creating dance-worthy, agitprop rock shows to convince them that, what the hell, pain and suffering are in store for everyone, so why worry about it?
At the end, the entire cast revels in a wild, bacchanalian dance, with streamers shooting across the stage and hundreds of balloons descending on the stage and auditorium. Meanwhile, the (brainwashed?) audience joyously parties at its imminent demise by singing and clapping along to the words, “We’re all going to die.” I couldn’t help thinking of how this could be an authoritarian government’s solution for quelling panic during the spread of a contagion.
We’re Gonna Die intends to celebrate life by noting the certainty of death. Really? I suggest, to offer a few examples, seeing what the reaction to it would be if it could be beamed to those people trapped on a cruise ship off California’s coast, to the quarantined citizens of northern Italy, or to the hundreds of thousands shivering and starving refugees in Syria.
Yes, we’re all going to die. We know it. But we spend our lives trying not to think about it. Do we really need not only to be reminded but to sing and clap about it?
Second Stage/Tony Kiser
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through March 22