How does the woman The New York Times has anointed “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation” follow up a silent play featuring an all-nude feminist cast? If you’re Young Jean Lee, you ask yourself the same question you ask yourself when you start any play—what don’t I want to write—then tackle a genre you’ve never written in before, along with the plight of history’s most privileged, least marginalized humans.
Lee’s Straight White Men stars four eponymous characters (a father and three sons) who come together to celebrate Christmas by playing board games, eating take-out, and figuring out why the best-looking, most talented member of their family seems paralyzed by his privilege. It’s the first linear narrative play Lee has ever written. It’s also the first play she’s directed with an all-white, all-male cast. “The idea of writing an identity politics play about straight white men seemed like a huge challenge,” she said. “Thinking of straight white maleness as an ethnic identity is a relatively new thing.”
Exploring what that identity means presented another problem: Any theatre that puts on the play is casting four white men and programming a play about four white men. How could Lee make it clear that despite all indicators to the contrary, this play “is not written from a straight male perspective”? She wrote loud, raunchy hip hop by black female artists into the script as the pre-show music, and she created a role for a pre-show announcer who is ideally played by a trans person of color. “The purpose is to make it clear that this is a world that has been created and is being controlled and manipulated by people who are not straight white men,” she said. In previous productions, the music has also created some of the tensions the play is exploring, as older, predominantly white audience members have complained about the volume, while younger, more diverse audiences “don’t even really notice it,” said Lee. “That dynamic was very consciously put in there, so that right off the bat, people who are coming into a play who want to inhabit a certain privileged place of comfort are immediately forced out of it.”
Lee said that the question at the heart of this dynamic and the play’s plot is: “To what extent are we, meaning everybody, implicit in the continuation of certain unjust circumstances?” It’s a question that’s been asked both onstage and off before, but Lee said she’s never seen it asked “in the framework of a straight white male character who is attempting to live in a responsible way, as somebody who has every privilege he could possibly have.” That character is Matt, the oldest brother, who should be the most successful—handsome, well-educated—yet chooses to live at home with his father and work a low-level job at a small non-profit organization.
Lee explained that the idea for Matt’s character came to her after she talked “to a roomful of women and queer people and minorities” about what they thought of straight white men and received a “very negative” response. She asked the group what straight white men could do to make them feel less negatively toward them, they gave her a list of ideas, and she went home and based Matt on that list. When she brought his character back to the group, however, “they really hated him because they thought he was a loser,” she said. “The whole play ended up being built around my total fascination about this discovery that in our society, we actually despise being a loser more than we despise being, say, a misogynistic jerk. There’s something about a loser that really brings out people’s disgust.”
Is this an American problem? A 21st-century problem? Or something more universal? “I feel like we’re living in a world that basically relies on social injustice and really vast class discrepancies,” said Lee, pointing out that at any hotel you go to, anywhere in the world, most of the maids and laborers are people of color and women. “We rely on a system in which we’re basically taking advantage of people all the time,” she said.
Yet what Lee doesn’t want is “a world in which it’s the exact same power structure, but just minority females are on top,” she said. The knee-jerk response is to think that getting straight white men out of the way will make the world a better place. Straight White Men, like all of her work, is a challenge to the easy reaction.
In the theatre world, where straight white men (many of whom are long dead), continue to dominate the stage, Lee is doing her best to make change. In an industry where many people and companies shy away from producing new work, I’m “just opening the door a crack wider,” she said. “We’re so far behind that every step we take away from only doing dead white playwrights is a step forward.” But she hastens to add, “But just because I’m an Asian female writing plays doesn’t mean I’m necessarily doing enough, and for me that’s one of the problems that drives the play.”