The self-loathing of a useless uncle. Rejection from friends in childhood. The brutal suffering of a dying parent. The perfidy of a wickedly careless spouse. Walking the pain side of the line more than the comic, playwright Young Jean Lee’s decade-old musical We’re Gonna Die is a future cult classic. Concluding Round House Theatre’s 2020-2021 virtual season, this new streaming production is a high-spirited, cathartic hour of monologues and original pop songs based on traumatic scenarios common to the human condition in all their absurd particulars, and its true stories are awfully timeless.
We’re Gonna Die feels rigorous in content and form—both in the tough truths imparted by Lee and in the tight arc of emotional build-up and release. Yet it’s also weird and funny, and goofily jubilant at the end. And it is timely, as we slowly process the personal impacts and global tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Powering Round House’s production is Regina Aquino’s expressive, kinetic performance as the everywoman Singer. In what is essentially a one-person show, Aquino can depict a six-year-old gleefully riding her bike, a bereft college grad whose significant other has just moved out, or a middle-aged person freaking over finding a first white hair. She’s also a triple threat who unfurls her Broadway-lush mezzo-soprano voice and whose conscious movement commands the stage. She’s plugged in to universal feelings.
The play’s theme is pain—regular human pain. The fact that that happens every day to someone doesn’t make it any less horrible. When bad times come for us, what actually is comforting? The Singer explains that her aim is to pass along examples of the ordinary, common-sense things that have made her feel better. “I’m sharing them with you in the hopes that they might help you to feel less lonely when you’re in pain, which I hope you’re not,” she says.
Aquino is joined on stage by local band The Chance Club’s Manny Arciniega on drums, Matthew Schleigh on guitar, Laura Van Duzer on keyboard, and Jason Wilson on bass, who also provide back-up vocals, musical direction, and arrangements of Lee’s songs.
Director and choreographer Paige Hernandez and the creative team made this production with love. In the program book, Hernandez tells dramaturg Naysan Mojgani, “We’re really looking to be D.C.-centric, as well as culturally specific.” The enjoyable rock-flavored pop songs are arranged to quote punk and go-go. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway’s thoughtful set includes a concert flyer for Bad Brains. “Our local audience will see themselves represented, and those who are tuning in from afar will learn more about us and this region and what makes us so dope,” she says. Aquino, who identifies herself as of Filipinx heritage, noted to the Washington Post that The Chance Club worked the Philippine national anthem into the score. Every time she heard those chords, she cried “because it’s so rare to be uplifted and honored in this way.”
In the partitioned back of the set, the four Chance Club musicians each are illuminated with lighting designer Harold F. Burgess II’s inviting jewel tones—purple, yellow, green, and blue—and the staircase in the center glows ruby red.
Lee, who became the first Asian American woman to have a play on Broadway with the focus group-informed Straight White Men in 2018, is known as an “adventurous” playwright who typically writes about identity. Her work is often characterized as experimental or nonlinear. For We’re Gonna Die’s 2011 premiere at Joe’s Pub in New York, Lee told Artforum, “[This] is my first show where it has all the crowd-pleasing elements but none of the formal frustration.”
There was an audience for this filmed performance, who were screened and tested for COVID-19. During the last song, as Aquino and the Chance Club dance joyfully and repeatedly sing with big smiles, “We are going to die,” we see the socially distanced audience, somberly masked. They are clapping along.
This closing number works—not necessarily on paper, but when you see this production. After the show’s barrage of disappointments, betrayals, and grief, and lessons in what is truly comforting, it’s hard won. Plays may be built on words, but the ebullience of the entire cast’s hearty singing and choreographed dancing—like no one’s watching, and full of life—gradually comes to feel like the most profound lesson of all.
Keep watching, past the credits, until the very end, for a surprise. Every now and then, real-life experiences can be wonderful, too.
Streaming on demand has been extended through July 25. $32.50. roundhousetheatre.org.