JC Lee play about the fallout over a lost job and bad behavior was commissioned by Balboa Park theater
For JC Lee, a play begins with a question he can’t quite seem to answer.
“Whenever I start to write something,” as Lee says, “it comes from a place of: ‘I want to understand.’”
That’s the case with “What You Are,” his world-premiere work that begins performances this week at the Old Globe Theatre.
The piece delves into some difficult and very of-the-moment topics: The idea of “toxic masculinity,” the specter of racial conflict, the suffering brought about by economic displacement and workplace upheaval in America.
To hear Lee tell it, the play is a way of asking, “How did we get here?”
But to get your mind around how this rising playwright and television/film scriptwriter got here — to the Globe and San Diego, with a brand-new work — you might need some kind of Venn diagram.
It turns out Lee has been in town of late not only for rehearsals of “What You Are” (directed for the Globe by Patricia McGregor), but for the recent screening of his new film “Luce” as part of the San Diego Film Festival’s Film Insider Series.
That movie, which stars Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer (and hits theaters this fall), is based on Lee’s play of the same name — which had its first professional reading at the Globe, in 2013.
And it was at that reading, part of the Powers New Voices Festival, that Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein commissioned Lee to write a new play. Which became “What You Are.”
“It’s this very funny full-circle moment of the film adaptation of the play that I wrote receiving a screening at the San Diego Film Festival during the time I’m rehearsing the play that got commissioned from that script,” Lee says with a laugh, as he chats before a recent run-through of the play.
“So San Diego is a kind of artistic home for me.”
Home for Lee originally was the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he was born to a family of modest means and was not exposed to a lot of theater.
But a chance opportunity to see Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” when he was a young kid changed everything, sparking Lee’s fascination with the power of theater and storytelling.
After graduating from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, he bounced to Northern California for a spell and then returned to New York to study at the Juilliard School. Then, he launched his professional playwriting career, and quickly started getting noticed — for his stage works and, eventually, his screenwriting.
The Globe-developed “Luce” had its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre in New York, and his theater pieces “Warplay” and “Relevance” also have had major productions; the latter is being adapted for film.
Lee, who has written for such TV shows as “Girls” and “Looking,” now lives in L.A. to be closer to the business, although “theater is still in my bones,” he says.
Wrestling with identity
Two experiences in particular set Lee’s mind in motion to start writing “What You Are,” which has been in the works for close to three years.
One was seeing Donald Trump on TV shortly before the 2016 election.
“I was in Europe, and CNN aired this 45-minute, uncut, no-commercial-break ‘press conference’ that the now-president gave,” he recalls. " And it was really shocking, mostly because I could not turn away. I was, like, completely hypnotized by him.
“I remember feeling deeply unsettled and deeply scared. And whenever I feel that way, my writer impulse is always to go, why am I feeling these things. Why can’t I turn away — what is it doing inside my brain?”
At first, Lee thought “What You Are” would be a play predominantly about race. And that issue does enter into the piece: The main character, Don, loses his job over a racially charged incident, and then sets about trying to make things right, in ways that could go very wrong.
“But I came to discover it was not about only race, but what was happening underneath that, which was a wrestling with a notion of male identity, and what it means to be a man in our current climate,” he says.
Part of what fascinated Lee was research that shows a correlation between unemployment in working-age men and instability in societies.
“Male identity is so tied to work,” Lee says. “Female identity has traditionally been tied to family, and family remains more or less constant regardless of how society changes.
“Work doesn’t; work shifts dramatically over time. Those factory jobs where you worked the same job for 40 years, and you had one skill and you exercised that skill over your lifetime — those jobs don’t exist anymore.”
Around the same time he was mulling those ideas, Lee heard from his own dad, who did medical transcription work (as did Lee’s mom) but suddenly had found himself unemployed.
“He didn’t get laid off,” explains Lee. “His job just stopped existing. That’s a job a computer does now.
“I remember he said, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m 50, my kids are grown up ... what do I do?’ And there was a fear in his voice that I think as young men we rarely hear in our fathers.
“It was another thing where I said, I have to understand that.”
Lee, who’s voluble and quick to a smile, with tattoos and a fashion sense that give him a rock ‘n’ roll vibe, says he was looking at the play’s issues in some ways from the outside in.
“My identity is not as tied to work, because I’m queer and I’m of color — I have a lot of other things I can latch my sense of self onto,” he says. “But I think a lot of men don’t have that.
“I think that because men traditionally are told having an emotional life — outside of a very narrow, prescribed idea of what that can be — is not ‘male,’ work becomes sort of all of that for them. And when it goes away, I think it’s really troubling for a lot of people.
“And with all the movements around gender nonconformity and different kinds of identity around gender, it just feels like something we need to understand.”
There is one other factor that informs “What You Are,” says Lee: The rise of the #MeToo movement.
It so happens that for what Lee calls several “agonizing” years, he worked on a now-defunct movie project with Harvey Weinstein, the former Hollywood heavyweight who was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. Those allegations were a major factor in the rise of #MeToo.
Lee tells of actually witnessing an incident of catcalling during a meeting at an L.A. hotel.
“And I, like a principled, vocal person, sat there frozen and did nothing,” he says now. “And what is that? What is it about that sort of maleness that silences everyone around them, and enables it?
“What is that impulse in me — and in all of us, I guess — that makes us complicit, you know?”
That question of responsibility enters into “What We Are,” when the main character has made a decision “to do something really dangerous,” Lee says.
“It’s a scene with him and a friend, and the friend doesn’t stop him. And I think there are so many moments we all have, where we see that moment go by and just can’t bring ourselves to say something.
“And I do think it’s tied to this idea of male authority and patriarchy. We see men behaving badly, and we tell ourselves boys will be boys, as a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility.
“Instead of stepping in and doing something about it.”
“What You Are”
When: Previews begin May 30. Opens June 6. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through June 30.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623