Young Jean Lee has brought to Washington, D.C. audiences a deeply perceptive, provocative play about race and identity during a time when this particular demographic— straight, white, male— is undergoing an essential investigation. Straight White Men is no base attack on whiteness and masculinity, nor a send-up of xenophobic caricature or supremacist stereotype, but instead a nuanced examination of the “well-meaning white man.” Presented by the Studio Theatre and directed by Shana Cooper, Lee offers a thorough exploration of privilege, ambition, and the lasting effects of white guilt.
Emerging from New York’s avant-garde, Young Jean Lee is no upstart playwright, boasting 12 produced works under her belt and touted by The New York Times as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.” A veritable force in the contemporary theater world, Lee is known for her daring voice and experimental style, notably so in her 2011 production of Untitled Feminist Show. Straight White Men breaks her practice of non-traditional storytelling to present a linear, naturalistic performance that seduces traditional theatre-going audiences [white, wealthy] into confronting often unspoken anxieties about race [their whiteness].
The premise of Straight White Men is straightforward: adult sons Jake [Bruch Reed] and Drew [Avery Clark] return to the Midwest to celebrate Christmas with their oldest brother Matt [Michael Tisdale] and widowed father, Ed [played by Michael Winters, recently seen in A Year in the Life and all 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls]. A fast-paced, holiday-at-home comedy lures the audience into a familiar Christmas tableau of boisterous brotherly shenanigans. The initial snappy dialogue between brothers and father on Christmas Eve reveals a moderately progressive background with a few radical pangs; the boys’ favorite childhood game was Privilege, a witty reconstruction of Monopoly adapted by their mother to teach her children about denial, privilege, and the woes of American capitalism. Once you are nestled comfortably into this Norman Rockwell-meets-Buzzfeed setting of board games and beer-drinking, the plot begins to move into sombre storytelling. The bright, crass comedy surrenders to a melancholy examination of white male privilege as Matt bursts into tears during Christmas dinner [Chinese take-out on the sofa].
What ensues is a chaotic discussion and attempted diagnosis of Matt’s frustrating status: oldest brother Matt is apparently aimless, carrying the massive debts of his Harvard doctorate, and having recently moved back in with his father, is refusing financial assistance to settle these debts; instead, he is trudging onward through a temp job, earning little while he is, by society’s standards, overqualified for the work. Matt’s resistance is that he won’t diagnose his aimlessness by his brothers’ terms, who view his lack of material success and ambition as a personal failure or complete refusal to embrace the system that keeps men of his status in power.
Drew, by contrast, is a young novelist and professor who writes about his white guilt while reaping the monetary benefits and status that comes with the successful publishing of such admissions. He leads a charge of university-age writers to become a critical voice against consumerism, and his most recent book is described as “a radical attack on the crassness of American materialism.” Armed with this critical, neoliberal eye, Drew believes Matt doesn’t think he deserves to succeed or feel happy because of his privileged upbringing, suggesting his white guilt is to blame for his lack of material success. Drew suggests therapy in order to convince Matt of his self-worth and to awaken his ambition.
Jake, the middle child and charismatic banker, theorizes that Matt is the only one of the 3 of them who is living the lifestyle taught by their mother that rejects their privilege, claiming that by purposefully trying not to succeed, Matt is “just trying to stay out of the way.” Jake postulates that Drew is simply taking the path of least resistance, trying to not impede on the opportunities of women and minorities by not taking any self-assured leaps himself. Both Drew and Jake are projecting their economic and racial anxieties onto their brother Matt.
Meanwhile, father Ed presents a familiar figure strikingly reminiscent of relatives who seem progressive but regrettably are acutely unaware of their privilege. Ed is a successful acquirer of the American Dream, he admits, by stumbling into it; he simply did “what everyone else was doing.” His sons Matt, Jake, and Drew are more keenly attune to the spoils of their upper-middle-class status, and each brother presents a different pathway of whiteness and another way of coping with their white guilt.
One of the central questions that Straight White Men addresses is the idea of whether a white man can possibly succeed, meaningfully, without undercutting and displacing women, queer folks, and minorities; further still, is it important or necessary for white men to succeed in the first place? Jake quips to his family: “Unlike women, queer people, and people of color, we can’t pretend we’re doing enough just by pursuing our own ambition.” Lee offers this harsh-but-potentially-valid question for women and people of color to contemplate.
As the title suggests, there are no POC nor women on stage, with the striking exception of the Stagehand-in-Charge, a hybrid role of a stagehand and an unnamed fifth character played by Jeymee Semiti. The use of a Stagehand-in-Charge throughout [a figure who breaks the fourth wall by interacting with props in between scenes] coupled with the unique framing device of aggressive, female hip-hop music for the pre-show both work to remind the audience that this white, male-centric world doesn’t exist in isolation, and that observers in the literal margins are the embodied antithesis to this white world.
By no means a “feel-good” holiday play, Straight White Men strikes a sharp balance between laugh-out-loud comedy and urgent family tragedy. Lee avoids caricature and cliché in Straight White Men, constructing instead four earnest, complex lives representing four individual pathways through privilege. The result is an intimate examination of white guilt and ambition, and impressively, a legitimately thoughtful contemplation on white male identity.
Straight White Men is playing at the Studio Theatre until 12/18. You can buy your tickets here.
Straight White Men. Written by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Shana Cooper. Performed by Avery Clark, Bruch Reed, Michael Tisdale, Michael Winters, and Jeymee Semiti. Produced by Studio Theatre.