Provocative playwright Young Jean Lee puts social privilege under the microscope in “Straight White Men”
By Christina Campodonico
Stepping in to see “Straight White Men” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre feels like entering a hip nightclub. A techno-pop mashup of tunes blares so loudly into the hallway that when you turn the corner to finally see the stage you can’t help but be a little shocked.
This isn’t a hopping nightspot, but a bland suburban living room where adult brothers roughhouse and play video games, jam out to hip-hop and eat Chinese food straight from the carton. It’s more frat house than cool club.
Yet the belying and abrasive musical welcome isn’t the only shocking thing about “Straight White Men.” It’s just the first of many to come.
The play by critically acclaimed New York writer, director and filmmaker Young Jean Lee constantly sets out to unsettle. Frank discussions about race, class and privilege drive the three-act play about three adult brothers who return home for a boys-only Christmas at their father’s house.
When two of the brothers pull out a Monopoly-esque board game called “Privilege” and start brazenly playing it, you can’t help but cringe and laugh at the same time. They pretend to fart and vomit out the dice, while pulling out “excuse” and “denial” cards that rattle off justifications for cultural insensitivity, like: “What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking” or “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.”
As self-aware as these men are of the privileges that come with their skin tone, sexual orientation, gender and socioeconomic status, their cavalier and boyish demeanor also tells us how oblivious they are to the very privileges that identity allows. Like a mother watching her kids play, seeing “boys being boys” is disgusting and loveable all at once.
But that discomfort is part of Lee’s intention — to make you squirm as much as she does when she’s generating her material.
“I’m pretty much uncomfortable through the process of making all of my work,” Lee, 41, told The Argonaut. “That’s sort of my MO.”
If you’re not a straight white man, writing about straight white men might get kind of uncomfortable. But Lee, who’s Korean-American and has been dubbed “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation” by The New York Times, doesn’t mind getting under other people’s skin — at least that of her characters. Her genre-bending work, which has dealt with immigrant identity, cultural appropriation, racial politics, body image and more, often confronts issues of race and identity head on.
For “Straight White Men,” Lee started with a premise straight out of a Kafka novel: What would it be like to wake up one morning in a completely different body?
“If I were to wake up tomorrow morning and I’m still me, but I’m in the body of a straight white man, what would happen to me?” she muses.
To answer this question Lee took an anthropological approach, soliciting the feedback of Facebook friends and students from Brown University, where she workshopped the play, as well as talking to a lot of straight white men.
While working on improvisational exercises with her actors to develop material, Lee noticed a lot of restrictive yet nebulous “rules” and “codes” governing their behavior. For instance, how do two men who haven’t seen each other in a long time greet one another? Do they shake hands or hug? Is an embrace too friendly or warm — even gay?
Lee found that expressing emotion physically wasn’t so much a sign of sexual orientation, but a way for men to define their masculinity and avoid seeming feminine at all costs. It was a prohibitive social code.
“To me, hearing about them felt very limiting and suffocating,” she says.
But the most astonishing insight for Lee came from a workshop group of women, queer and minority students at Brown. She asked them how they would want a straight white man to behave and she incorporated those qualities into the character of Matt, the eldest of the three brothers. He’s a smart and sweet guy who lives at home as a companion to his aging and widowed father, but he’s a little aimless when it comes to his own aspirations. When Lee presented the character to the group she was surprised to discover how little they actually liked him, even though they had requested his character specifically.
“Everybody hated him,” says Lee.
Despite the disdain that Matt inspired, Lee sees him as a “point of empathy” within the play because he’s not the typical white male hero that society usually idolizes in film, television and plays. Instead of overcoming obstacles and going after his goals, he’s actually kind of a “loser,” she says.
As in the focus group, Matt, played by Brian Slaten, often gets the short end of the stick in the play. His brothers pick on him, ignore his opinions and interrogate him about his happiness and life goals. Matt attempts to soldier on with a quiet strength against his brother’s inquiries, but Lee doesn’t allow safe haven for long. The familial pressures that ensue may upset your preconceived notions of what it means to be white, straight and male, but that’s exactly how Lee wants it to be — nice and uncomfortable.
“Straight White Men” plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and at 1 and 8 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 20 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. $30 to $55. Call (213) 972-4444 or visit centretheatregroup.org.