He speaks the truth softly, at a show called Talkingstick


By Jennifer DeMeritt

When Master Lee did a stand-up show at Riker’s Island ten years ago, he was greeted by shouts of “Yo, Master Lee!” from inmates who recognized him from his martial-arts street shows in Washington Square Park. Now, he’s hosting truth-based storytelling events at the Friends Meeting House in Gramercy and encouraging participants to bare their souls. How does an artist make it from inmates to Quakers, from Kung Fu to true confession?

“It was a pendulum swing,” Master Lee says when asked to describe his transformation. “I went from the most flamboyant type of performing to the most pared down, the most painful, and most rewarding.”

Known by his friends as William Lee, this tall, long-haired Chinese-American has been a fixture in the Village for 20 years. He started doing street shows in Washington Square Park when he was in college, first as a juggler, then as a kung-fu comic incorporating jokes, fire tricks, and martial arts. Thousands of NYU students, drug dealers, tourists, and neighborhood grifters undoubtedly remember his immortal words: “Ladies and gentlemen! I, Master Lee, will break this board” (dramatic pause) “with my HEAD. But first!”

For five years he did standup in comedy clubs, garnering spots on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Showtime at the Apollo, but returned to street shows because they gave him a visceral jolt he couldn’t find anywhere else. Eventually Master Lee and Washington Square Park outgrew each other: he wanted to evolve artistically, and the Giuliani administration wanted to ban open flames from the park.

He immersed himself in the alternative comedy scene on the Lower East Side, especially Faceboy’s Open Mic and Reverend Jen’s Anti-Slam. In these free-for-all art spaces, he took creative risks that were impossible in street shows or comedy clubs. He experimented with playwrighting and created new performance characters, the boldest and strangest being a uber-surrealist Salvador Dali who pulled fish out of his pants and played kickball with squid (to the delight of alt-comedy audiences and the horror of his girlfriend).

Then he turned 40, and had a mid-life crisis in reverse: instead of buying a sports car and escaping into a macho fantasy world, he retired his hyper-masculine, over-the-top stage characters and started performing as himself, William Lee, with no props and no jokes — just true stories about his life.

“I was looking for something deeper,” Lee says when he describes this transition. “I think a lot of people go through that when they turn 40. Street shows and vaudeville were great when I was doing them, but they weren’t satisfying anymore. After I turned 40, I started reading Carl Jung and the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” I would listen to tapes of Martin Luther King, Jr., then go to Faceboy’s Open Mic and talk about my mother’s death, or the greatest things that ever happened to me.”

Around this time, he met Rick Patrick, a painter and storyteller who, like Lee, was going through a transition in his life and his creative work. “Will and I were interested in the same things,” Rick says. “We were both a little older than the other people on the scene, and we wanted to influence them in a positive way. But we also complement each other. I grew up in wealth and comfort, but Will didn’t. I’ve had a lot of schooling while he is very street smart. But the very poor and the very rich are the same because they have nothing to lose by speaking their minds.”

Together, they started Talkingstick, a suite of truth-based storytelling shows that now include a booked show for polished acts, an open forum where anyone can participate, and a monthly event at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan art, where museum guides and seasoned performers riff on the artworks as part of a short guided tour. (Lee also hosts a similar series called “True Stories Tuesdays”; see “Hit send for therapy, or take the stage,” page 16)

They named the shows Talkingstick after the ceremonial stick that is passed from speaker to speaker in Native American rituals and council meetings. Talkingstick floats among different venues, including Downtown theaters and a few spiritual spaces like the Quaker Friends Meeting House and the Tibet House in Chelsea. These spaces, like the name Talkingstick, reflect Master Lee’s and Mr. Patrick’s belief that the truth is sacred, and everybody’s story is important.

Unlike New York’s other popular storytelling shows, which attract well-heeled writers and skew towards humorous, carefully crafted anecdotes, Talkingstick values bald-faced honesty over polish. The resulting stories run the gamut from inspiring to disturbing. At a recent open forum, a participant confessed that he was coming out of the closet. At another, a man talked about hitting his mother and two of his girlfriends.

In his most recent show at the Rubin Museum, Master Lee stood next to a Hindu painting of intertwining lovers and told a story about his struggles to be intimate with an old girlfriend who had HIV. He started by emitting a long growling “Om,” his gravelly voice filling the room while his huge calloused hands floated gracefully through the air. In a slow Laurie Anderson-style metronomic chant, he spoke about the agony of making love while praying that the condom doesn’t break and that the HIV test comes out negative. But he also lightened the story with small jokes. “She called to say ‘Wwe have to talk.’ And I said ‘Uh oh.’ Whenever a woman says ‘We have to talk,’ something bad is about to happen.” This is a far cry from breaking boards over his head to make a living. Yet the things Lee learned while doing tricks in the park — timing, humor, and inclusiveness — help his knotty story about love and death come across with graceful simplicity. Even in the rarefied air of a museum, he retains the street performer’s ability to connect to almost anyone.