Writer Jackie Mantey recently spoke by phone with playwright Young Jean Lee about Lee's Wexner Center Artist Residency Award-supported work STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, which makes its world premiere here later this week. Read more of Mantey's work on her website, and get your tickets to STRAIGHT WHITE MEN here.
The play premiering at The Wexner Center for the Arts this week (Thu–Sun, Apr 10–13) is called STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, but, by the time the curtain closes, its writer and director, Young Jean Lee, hopes you know it has little to do with that once über-privileged segment of the ‘merican populace.
“It’s sympathetic but critical of all of us,” the playwright said in a phone interview (Jean Lee works out of New York but is a recipient of the institution’s coveted Wexner Center Artist Residency Award).
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN puts a theatrical lens on four straight white male family members hanging out during a holiday weekend. The four range in age, politics and lifestyle, but painfully evident is the dynamic intricacies—from guilt and inaction, to bullshit and bravado—heterosexual masculinity can take on during a cultural shift.
How does a, albeit slow, shift toward more race, gender and sexual equality shape the once incredibly privileged straight white male? How does guilt for ancestors’ sins shape them? How do they shape all of us?
As the characters work to reconcile—or not reconcile—their relationship to privilege and perceived privilege, the audience is in turn asked to face its own.
Do we feel privilege over others who do not recognize their privilege? Why? How do we move forward happily and self-actualized from that? Should self-actualization even be a goal for a just society?
Jean Lee heavily workshopped this play at Brown University. It was here that she also performed myriad focus groups—both on Facebook and in person—with a melting pot of people about what they think of when they think of straight white men.
(Even this has a sense of interesting, problematic justice to it. Someone other than straight white men defining who straight white men are parallels, with just a hint of schadenfreude, generations of them defining and choosing for the Other, something we still feel reverberations from today.)
“It completely altered my worldview,” Jean Lee said of working on this play. “Things I see as common sense are a historically specific ideology. We are so hyper-individualistic now. There’s so much wrapped into that and self-actualization is such a contemporary way of thinking … that is at odds with our desire for justice…. I don’t live in accordance with my principles. Most people don’t.”
Well, we are all just trying to survive, right?
“But even that is problematic. Our idea of survival is so twisted,” she rebuffed. “I don’t, for example, need to hang onto that group of friends.”
For someone who covers topics like racial and sexual identity, Jean Lee admits she doesn’t care about identity politics. Constantly asking others about privilege is admittedly not her preferred way to spend her time.
“As with all my projects, I try to make the last show I would want to make,” she said. “This forces me out of my comfort zone and the audience out of their comfort zone.”
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN also marks a change in style for the playwright that the New York Times once tapped as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.” This work follows a linear narrative, a very conventional form of storytelling on stage, meaning it’s pretty warm white bread compared to her previous work.
“In some ways [writing in a linear format] was easier. The rules are clearer than in experimental theater and constraints always make things easier,” she said, adding, though, that it was “incredibly labor intensive and super slow.”
Dramaturgical decisions had to follow a conservative ideal, which is not the artist’s natural inclination.
“I couldn’t have someone flying through the air,” she laughed.
The show’s subject matter seems one of particular appeal following the whole #privilege614 debacle of early 2014, during which local discussions on the subject of privilege and who was allowed to talk about it (my opinion: everyone) seemed so misunderstood and complicated that there COULD have been someone flying through the air and we would have been like “Yes, that makes sense.” Straight white men are people too! But, of course, it’s not that simple.
“I want people to have a lot of questions,” Jean Lee said of the play’s subject matter. “I want it to get stuck in their psyches.”
I think questions of privilege are already stuck in our psyches–at least in this town–but I’m excited to see discussion on it in a way that considers all parties by looking at the demographic–straight white men–that is straddling being the damning and being the damned.