Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Straight White Men: A Play by Young Jean Lee
This comedy by Young Jean Lee has been making the rounds for the past couple years in theatres in major cities, and I believe it has come up for a major award(s) recently, which is how it came to my attention.
Lee looks into the heart of a family of white men at Christmas--their strange rituals, their familiar cruelties, their tendency to coordinate attacks, their blind support for one another. A father and three college-educated sons meet to share the holiday, eating take-out Chinese in new flannel pajamas, sitting side-by-side on a too-small couch, and teasing one another mercilessly. They are so white.
Young Jean Lee examines how aware these men are of their whiteness, privilege, and opportunity in their own society by having one of the brothers, Matt, not fulfill what the others think is his role, but also, we discover, his birthright.
Having someone look closely at white ritual in America could be a harsh experience but Lee makes it silly, funny, and mostly non-threatening while raising important questions around what constitutes privilege and how far each of us as individuals should go to erase, ignore, eliminate those special rights enjoyed by the majority class.
Matt is smarter than the others, has the best education and had the most promise. He is the one doing the least 'moving and shaking' amongst the brothers. We are a little surprised to find they resent that pulling back, and insist he carve a productive role for himself in society. But Matt feels he is being productive, live-in companion to his father, and is troubled by all that he sees and knows and tries everyday to find his way in a society that doesn't make much moral or ethical sense.
As a theatre piece, the play runs about an hour and a half. Most of that is taken up with the weird behaviors of white American men display in exclusive and close proximity to their families. But there is some discussion of larger issues. We know there is something we are meant to see because of the starkness of the title and because one of the men begins to cry less than halfway through the play. This can't be right, we think. Not all is well here.
The ending and the final pages come as a shock after the foolishness, they are so profound. "There is nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence," the youngest and brightest among them claims their mother would have said. "Do not despair, and keep searching for answers" is the advice from one who has loved them. It seems like very good advice indeed.
If this production comes through your city, it may be worth finding the time to attend. Like I say, the ending came at me with enough force to make me gasp and left me feeling something important had been said.
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