As subject matter learners, we value any opportunity to learn from new experiences and perspectives. So last Friday our team saw Straight White Men, Broadway’s first play written by a Korean-American woman, Young Jean Lee.
The play’s title has an ironic draw. It’s simple and says exactly what you need to know — this show is about straight, white men. And the performance follows suit.
When the show opens we are greeted by two chorus characters — one transgender, Native person and one gender non-conforming white person named Person in Charge 1 and 2, respectively. They are, as their names suggest, “in charge” of the action onstage. These characters serve as buffers for what might be triggering or uncomfortable content for audience members who aren’t straight, white men. Person In Charge 1 and 2 feel familiar and, despite their complex identities, more relatable than the title characters.
The principal characters, Jake, Drew, and Matt, are all brothers visiting home for Christmas with their father, Ed. They spend time reminiscing over their childhood, recalling moments of radicalism and protest while playing an amended version of Monopoly, developed by their mother, called “Privilege.” We get a sense that this family is “liberal” in that they believe (at least on the surface) in liberal ideals. But as the action unfolds, so does the facade of those liberal ideals.
During an intimate Christmas Eve dinner, Matt breaks into tears — an awkward and unfamiliar experience for the family. This moment looms over them into the next day, leaving everyone unsettled, especially Drew who insists that Matt seek therapy. Everyone has an answer to Matt’s problem: money, insecurity, depression. Matt’s answer is simple: he wants to be useful.
At the core of the production’s story is a discussion of expectations. What is expected of white men? What does accomplishment look like for white men? What destiny is chosen for these characters and for people who look like them? And does failure to meet those expectations decrease their worth?
Lee leads the same way Point Made Learning does — with empathy. While this play challenges the privileges of white manhood, it also exposes the dangers. White men, at least the archetypal white man, benefit from the various systems of oppression designed by and for them. The assumption is that they live without injury. Lee challenges that assumption by suggesting that white men face at least one difficulty: themselves. Matt does not get to choose his destiny, though the privileges of his whiteness, education, and wealth create the illusion that he has self-determination. His destiny (or expectation) is that of the other straight, white men before him — to conquer whatever space he enters. But Matt does not want that, and his family, noticeably missing its matriarch, cannot reconcile his decision or lack thereof. Why wouldn’t he use his privilege to his advantage? Why wouldn’t he participate in white supremacy? Those are their expectations of him and other straight, white men for that matter. But Lee asks another question: are all white men the same?
Marginalized people may find this question difficult to answer. Why should we use our energy to consider the dilemma of white manhood? It’s unfair, and that feeling of inequity lingers after the show closes. But in an era of quick judgement and harsh consequences, Lee looks for a middle ground: an understanding. Where is the empathy?
In the end, there is no clear answer. It is — to borrow a term from Jennifer Yim, one of our mentors and partners — “deceptively simple.” On one hand, Young Jean Lee’s writing and Anna D. Shapiro’s direction leave little to the imagination. Everything is simple, like the play’s title. But there’s also an irony to its simplicity. It makes you wonder why it was so easy. And that maybe it was not so simple at all. There may not be an answer but we can at least commit to learning more.
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