Metro, Arts, Theatre

‘Straight White Men’ Pushes Audience to Question Privilege

A small crowd of white-haired, well-dressed people gathered outside of the box office at MainStage Theater, waiting to collect their tickets. Couples, friends, and individuals funneled into the auditorium of New Repertory Theatre in residence at the Mosesian Center for the Arts. Patrons wrinkled their noses and turned to their friends as they entered. Everyone seemed to be asking the same question: “Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing?”

CupcakKe’s song “Deepthroat” permeated the air, a song rife with sexual references that seemed to bother some members of the crowd. The props on stage seemed more fitting considering the audience—a living room with cozy couches, a plaid chair, and a Christmas tree looked reminiscent of your typical, peaceful American home in December.

Sitting on the couch was The Person in Charge, a fiery young person with metallic clothing from head to toe. As people entered the theater, The Person in Charge danced around, straightening up pillows and mouthing the words to every song that came on. As the lights were turned down, they—The Person in Charge’s pronouns are they/them—explained to the audience why the music was blaring. Paying customers expect to be comfortable, they said, but most places cater to the comfort of only certain demographics. And so enters the very premise of Straight White Men: the analysis of this identity that was once thought of as the “default” human being.

The show opens on Christmas Eve, as adult brothers Drew and Jake return to their childhood home where the eldest brother, Matt, lives with their father, Ed. The brothers are fiercely different: Jake is a banker with a stereotypical “masculine” personality, Drew is a sensitive university professor, and Matt is a Harvard graduate working a temp job, much to the chagrin of his family. Still, the three brothers relive the glory days of their childhood with old choreographed dances and typical horseplay.

When Matt begins to cry during dinner, the other three men can’t agree how to react. Ed wants to give him some time, Drew says they need to talk it out, and Jake tries to pretend it isn’t happening. Something seemingly small breaks open a gaping divide between the men of this family. The boys’ mother is noticeably absent, her death creating a hole in their family dynamic that all four seem unsure of how to navigate. Over the course of the next few days, the four argue about why Matt, a man that had seemingly every opportunity, is struggling.

Ed believes it’s Matt’s student loans that are weighing on his mind. Drew insists that Matt must be depressed. It’s Jake, however, who makes the claim that Matt is just trying to fail and make himself small so that other people—read: not straight white males—have a chance to succeed.

This introduces the concept that playwright Young Jean Lee wanted to explore: the “disjunction between the desire for social justice and the desire for things to stay the same.”

Is Matt truly committing to social justice by refusing to move up the corporate ladder? Or is his decision to “waste” his potential, as his family views it, while still living comfortably a selfish luxury that most people couldn’t afford?

Lee was born in South Korea and moved to the United States when she was 2 years old. In order to truly capture the essence of the “straight white man” in her writing, she interviewed dozens of them. Further than that, she interviewed a more diverse crowd to see what it is that they desire from this demographic. In the director’s note, however, director Elaine Vaan Hogue writes that Lee says she was careful to avoid the idea of “scapegoating” the straight white man.

When asked how her show had changed her, Lee said it made her examine what privilege really is. If she is considered to be doing something for social justice just by doing something she loves, is that privilege? Hogue said that the show was intended to make everyone watching confront something in themself, she said in the playbill.  

Matt is in a deep personal conflict—one that cannot be resolved within the context of this 90-minute play. But, this performance isn’t an answer. It’s intended to spark questions.

“What questions might you ask as the theatre after the performance?” Hogue asks in the playbill. “How might you be transformed? What can we, as a community, learn about ourselves?”

Featured Image by Andy Brilliant

September 16, 2018

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