In Straight White Men, playwright Young Jean Lee finds remarkable insight and startling sympathy with our society’s least oppressed identity. Far from a brutal if well-deserved takedown, Lee digs deep into how her subjects think, feel, and suffer even as they try to do right by everyone else.
The script asks for the pre-show to feature “loud hip-hop with sexually explicit lyrics by female rappers,” which director Shana Cooper delivers on with Lose Control by Missy Elliot, ft. Ciara & Fatman Scoop. Jeymee Semiti takes the stage as the prescribed “transgender or gender nonconforming STAGEHAND-IN-CHARGE […] preferably a person of color,” for the pre-show announcements. Semiti and Elliot firmly establish that this play is looking in at the straight, white male identity from outside. But the contrast with the first scene is night and day.
Avery Clark and Bruch Reed, as Drew and Jake respectively, play two grown men, spending Christmas with their widowed father, played by Michael Winters. They kick off the show teasing each other and wrestling like silly boys. Irritating songs and purple-nurples set a baseline of boorish masculinity, until Drew pulls out Privilege, a copy of Monopoly edited by their late mother to teach them the virtues of social justice back when they were young. As the play continues, carefree, juvenile masculinity transitions into a painful experiment, vivisecting each character’s perspective of their own privilege.
Clark and Reed’s chemistry as Drew and Jake is effortless. The two banter and battle like real family, with decades of shared life between them. Michael Tisdale plays Matt, the third brother, who lives with their father and works part-time to keep student loans at least a decade old at bay. He never quite fits into Drew and Jake’s playful rhythm, a fine line walked deftly by Tisdale and Cooper.
The experiment begins when Matt starts crying in the middle of dinner.
From there, Drew, Jake, and their dad all take swings at diagnosing Matt’s problem. In doing so, they reveal their own flaws and damage. Drew is a social conscious author, but has no qualms with taking up space that could give a non-white, non-straight, non-male voice a vital platform; he wants Matt to be happy, not realizing his own firmly-rooted egotism. Jake despises himself for playing the game and knowingly benefiting from the white, heterosexual patriarchy; he needs Matt to be a martyr who redeems their family for him. Ed, the family patriarch, just wants to see his boys succeed in (a very capitalist) life, and is easily frustrated by his own ignorance.
Straight White Men
closes December 18, 2016
Details and tickets
Matt himself was born when Lee asked a collection of women, queer people, and people of color what they would like to see in a straight, white male on stage. When presented with the finished product, the group declared him a total loser.
Straight White Men is at its best about fifteen minutes after the cast takes their bows, when the audience has put sufficient distance between themselves and the venue to speak openly about their thoughts. It is irresistible to continue Lee’s experiment, teasing apart each line to gain deeper insight into Matt or debating the virtues and vices of each of his family members’ arguments. The brief cameo by Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of a Tragedy deserves an entire faction in that argument to itself.
In a society where white, straight men are destructively seen as the default, it is surprisingly novel to speak about their place as a unique identity. In those many conversations set off by Straight White Men, Lee’s experiment is a resounding success.
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. Set design by Andrew Boyce. Costume design by Helen Huang. Lighting design by Ji-Youn Chang. Sound design by Kenny Neal. Dramaturgy by Adrien-Alice Hansel. Casting direction by Jack Doulin + Sharky. Production stage management by Allie Roy. Produced by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.