2econd Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 22, $69-$125
“There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die,” President Trump said when news about the coronavirus crisis was first spreading. While that might be true when it comes to Covid-19, it’s not true in general, as mightily declared by Young Jean Lee in Raja Feather Kelly’s glorious remounting of her one-act play with music, We’re Gonna Die, continuing at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through March 22. The sixty-five-minute work consists of stories about loneliness and death that Lee collected from friends and relatives and transformed into a series of monologues delivered by one woman, as if all these awful events happened to her. Lee first presented the show at Joe’s Pub and then at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow Theater, where she was the lead, backed by her rock band, Future Wife.
Janelle McDermoth now takes over, and she is dazzling as she relates poignant tales and blasts out songs both gentle and fierce across David Zinn’s calming, antiseptic set, a kind of hospital waiting room with a vending machine, lots of empty chairs and a central spiral staircase that goes through the ceiling and the floor, evoking a way station. As you enter the theater, a large-scale neon sign of the title moves slowly back and forth in front of the stage, a reminder of what is going to eventually happen to each and every one of us. Guitarists Freddy Hall and bandleader Kevin Ramessar, keyboardist and dance captain Ximone Rose, and bassist Debbie Christine Tjong enter and sit down, while drummer Marques Walls plays in a separate room off to stage left. As the show continues, balloons occasionally drop from above, accumulating in a far corner, telling us that even though this might be about the inevitability of death, it doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.
The stories are told chronologically, as if belonging to one life, beginning with the presenter as a little girl trying to understand her weird uncle and why her two best friends shunned her, then considering dating and partnering relationships with men and caring for her ailing father. The songs, which pour forth from a wide range of genres — the arrangements are by Remy Kurs, with orchestrations by Cian McCarthy — relate directly to the tales, beginning with the opening number, “Lullaby for the Miserable,” in which the singer remembers something her mother told her when she was unable to get to sleep as a child: “When your brain’s had enough / And your body gives up / You will sleep / By and by / By and by / You will sleep / By and by / You are not the only one / You are not the only one / You are not the only one / You are not the only one.” That repetition serves as a leitmotif for the rest of the show, which emphasizes that no one is spared from life’s problems and, eventually, death itself.
Later, the singer recalls, “About a year ago, I went back home for a younger cousin’s wedding, and while I was at home, I found my first white hair. Now, I had never been a person who worried at all about getting older or losing my looks — I just never thought about that stuff. So it all just kind of hit me in this one moment. . . . I had reached the point in my life where everything from here on out was going to be a downward decline towards deterioration and sickness and death. And this had never occurred to me before, so I was really traumatized.” She follows that up with a funky, funny number about something her grandmother told her mother: “When you get old / You will lose your mind! / And everything will hurt all the time! Uh-huh / Uh-huh / . . . / When you get old / All your friends will die! / And you will be a burden to the world! / Uh-huh / Uh-huh.” Among the other songs, whose titles sum things up pretty clearly, are “I Still Have You,” “Comfort of the Lonely,” and “Horrible Things.” Even the Korean-born Lee’s full name, Young Jean Lee, seems relevant, suggesting a youthfulness even though the “Young” is an Americanization of her surname.
In 2016, the Brooklyn-based Lee — a multitalented writer and performer whose previous plays include Straight White Men, Lear, The Shipment, and Untitled Feminist Show — and Future Wife released a DVD of readings and songs from the show with such special guests as Colin Stetson, Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Sara Neufeld, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson, but there’s nothing like seeing it with one singer, and McDermoth (A Bronx Tale, Soul Doctor) is a revelation. Dressed in cool yellow and black leather (the costumes are by Naoko Nagata), she struts around with an infectious determination and a nod and a wink, winning over the audience immediately and never letting go; she is us, and we are her. Kelly, who has choreographed such plays as Fairview, A Strange Loop, The House That Will Not Stand, and Girls, explodes We’re Gonna Die to the next level, transforming it from an involving song cycle to a more fully fledged theatrical production. There’s a clock onstage that depicts the real time, minutes and seconds ticking away not just in our lives but, more important, on the show itself. I found myself filled with sadness as the sixty-minute mark approached, knowing it would soon be over. But I was also energized and invigorated by the fantastic finale, in which everyone participates and caution is thrown to the wind. Yeah, so we’re all gonna die. That shouldn’t mean that we can’t make the most of every moment we’re still here.