Young Jean Lee’s theatre, entitled Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company (2003-2016), was dedicated to producing “shows written and directed by Young Jean Lee.” The company produced 12 of Ms. Lee’s productions.
After watching Studio Theatre’s production of her 2014 Straight White Men, it’s easy to see why.
Experimental, psychologically complex, this play comes right at you, like a freight train, loaded down with more baggage, i.e., identity politics, than any train ought to carry without a danger sign. For when it hits you, it will be more than your wind that’s knocked out of you.
And yes, I’m serious and please don’t take me literally. The laughter and the anguish (existential I’m sure) lingers long after the lights come down.
Yet, Straight White Men is straighter than almost any of Ms. Lee’s other plays, with its laugh out loud antics, its naturalistic set and realistic characters (who are bourgeois not working class), its straightforward through-line of action, its complications and its crises, and its all too underplayed climax.
Four straight white guys, a dad and his three adult sons, reunite to celebrate Christmas. It’s Christmas Eve and, as widower Ed (Michael Winters), a retired engineer, drags a fake Christmas tree through the front door, we meet his three sons, Drew (Avery Clark), Jake (Bruch Reed), and Matt (Michael Tisdale).
In other words, it’s an episode from the hit 1960’s sitcom My Three Sons starring Fred MacMurray as the Father (he was also an engineer). The only difference is this family doesn’t play Monopoly; this family plays Privilege.
Now, if you haven’t heard of the game before, that’s okay; you’ve surely heard of the construct. This game was invented by the boys’ deceased mother when she turned Monopoly on its head. The Iron and the Thimble may still be present; only now well-off white people, especially males, draw Chance Cards that tell them that they have been stopped by the police for no reason and must go “directly to jail.”
So yes, these three sons have been deconstructed and re-materialized to fit the post conscious-of-white-patriarchy-age.
To be sure, Director Shana Cooper puts a non-naturalistic frame around this most theoretically conscious and comically cathartic tale: she creates a meta-narrative, as in a Stagehand-in-Charge, Jeymee Semiti (whose bio characterizes her as “an aspiring human rights activist” with a “lifelong passion for modeling and the performing arts”).
As the audience waits for the show to begin, a body-pounding “gangsta” preshow rap reverbing our ears, Ms. Semiti enters, cuts the music with a slicing gesture, and signals the houselights to go black.
To add to this directorial frame, audience members can also look through the cracks between the unit set of Daddy Ed’s living room and the Mead Theatre’s interior walls and see, in the shadowy backstage lights, what looks like the family kitchen, so on and so forth–there’s a back yard out there in somewhere Middle America.
And such is the world of this mind deconstructing theatrical enterprise entitled Straight White Men.
Ed’s three sons are all making their way in the world, two quite successfully.
Drew has a novel published, and reviewed in the New Yorker. He’s a professor, albeit with a single course, and even though he’s in therapy, he tells his dad that that’s okay, because it makes him happy.
His brother Jake is a very successful banker. Even though his marriage to his African American wife ended in divorce, he remains committed to raising their two children as white as they can be while going to a private school where they are the token blacks.
And then there is Matt, the former Ph.D. brain of the family, now relegated to being its metaphorical Black Hole, that swirling vortex into which all things successful eventually vanish.
Straight White Men may appear sitcom; it may have all the accoutrements of realism; but Straight White Men, as the name implies, is anything but.
For as Young Jean Lee’s play makes ever so dramatically clear: “male” is a construct; “white” is a construct; “straight” is a construct. And without those constructs, those categories that give us the ability to lend our daily lives meaning and purpose (not bread mind you), there would be very little we mortals could do to endure the onslaught of raw phenomena.
“Knowledge” is our defense against the vicissitudes of life.
So for God’s Sake hang on to your constructs, your “whiteness”, your “Asian-ness”, your “maleness”, your “blackness”, your “femaleness”, your “gayness”, your “privilege-ness”…
On and on the list of definers tumbles, for when the world turns upside-down, it’s all you’ll have to give you warmth and understanding.
Go see Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men … if your identity dares.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
David Siegel reviews ‘Straight White Men’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.