In these jagged days immediately after the election, Studio Theatre’s richly revealing production of Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee is bracing, to say the least. It deserves our attention no matter how we may self-identify, or be branded by others.
In these times when many of our dearly held views are scrutiny, Young Jean Lee’s poking and scratching into the nature of straight white male identity and group privilege will challenge many theatrical, political and culturally-bound expectations. The Studio Theatre’s production comes at a time when many are seeking soothsayers.
Buy yourself a ticket to Straight White Men, for one such soothsayer. To quote playwright Young Jean Lee from Studio marketing material, she likes to, “put a little piece of gravel into their [the audience] brains that irritates them.” Straight White Men does that with ease under the sharp, but very sympathetic, direction of Shana Cooper (who directed the Woolly Mammoth Theater production of darkly thought-provoking The Nether).
So, what is Straight White Men about? Patrons may sense they are in for something completely different from the rather middle class set design by Andrew Boyce, they witness upon entering the Mead Theatre space. Loud urban hip hop music is the pre-show introduction to Straight White Men, provided by Sound Designer Kenny Neal. Then a “Stagehand-in-Charge” comes into view and orders everyone to take care of silencing their cell phones.
The surface of Straight White Men is a “naturalistic” family comedy about three middle-aged, unmarried brothers and their widower father together again on Christmas. At first they relive days from decades before when the now middle-aged brothers were kids. The brothers comically rough-house, wrestle and annoy each other. They put up a fake Christmas tree and even wear child-hood pajamas. Nothing unusual there.
They sound as if they are progressive in outlook, or so the audience may initially think. Soon enough the audience learns that this is no old geezer television series like My Three Sons. Playwright Young Jean Lee has much hidden up her sleeves. This is to be a far more complex evening of introspective stage entertainment.
There is Jake (Bruch Reed with an alpha male, cock-sure-of-himself attitude and some lines that sounded like President-elect Donald Trump written way before the recent election), a successful banker. He is divorced from his African-American wife, and he misses seeing his children.
There is Drew (Avery Clark with a petulant, annoying demeanor as many know from a younger brother), who is an academic with a radical bent in his writing and a fear of commitment. There is eldest brother Matt (with an illuminating slumped, hangdog, ultimately mournful performance by Michael Tisdale), currently back at home living with his dad while working at temp job for a non-profit social justice organization.
Finally is the Dad named Ed (Michael Winters channeling into a jovial, gentle, decent father), who acts as if he knows the world is changing on for he says to his sons; “I grew up in different times.” Sadly, his true colors appear that sets the show ablaze like Atlanta burning in Gone With The Wind.
The all-white male family in the play take audiences members on unexpected turns. There is a family board game that is a riff of “Monopoly” that their deceased Mother created. It is called “Privilege” meant to inculcate the sons with the notion that being a privileged straight white male is not a group identity to flaunt over others.
There is an hilarious parody of the classic musical Oklahoma! that includes wondrous lyrics written by Matt as a child to rebel against all-white theater casting. Then comes a shocker. As the evening unfolds, Matt has a visible breakdown. At first there are attempts at understanding from the family. Then each of the brothers and father try to find some factual actual explanation for Matt’s condition based upon their own “magical thinking.” Is it student loans? Inability to do well in job interviews? Would therapy be helpful? Is there a self-esteem issue? What might it be? Why is Matt unwilling or unable to respond?
Straight White Men is fearless. It is a deep dive into questions about what makes someone react to the world as they do. Studio’s production of Straight White Men comes at a time when the Sunday NY Times of November 13, 2016 published an opinion piece by Nell Irvin Painter entitled “What Whiteness Means in the Tump Era.” It comes at a time whens sixteen writers have short pieces about identity and other issues in this week’s The New Yorker.
Leaving the performance of Straight White Men I attended, I heard many a comment from the mostly older white patrons (I admit I am one of those aging children) that ranged from anger, to annoyance to being completely perplexed about what was “the” point of the play was. Well, that should be your invitation to step into the world of Straight White Men and form your opinion.
Then, please let me know what you think about your answer to this from one of the characters in the show: “You can’t change the system without giving up the benefits you gain from that system.”
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.