Adrien-Alice Hansel on Straight White Men

A Note from the Dramaturg

Young Jean Lee’s far-ranging experiments in the theatrical avant-garde include a contemporary minstrel show, a nearly wordless piece about feminism performed by nude performers, and a kingless Lear that ends with a eulogy from Sesame Street. Her latest, Straight White Men, is a provocation in a different key. Lee conceived the play as she does all of her theatrical work: by asking herself to identify the “last show in the world” she’d want to see and then daring herself to actually make it. In this case, she was both mortified and fascinated by the idea of creating a show about progressive identity politics with straight white male characters, written as a naturalistic family drama. Without nudity or cameo text from PBS, the play goes to the heart of Lee’s sense of adventure and humor by playing it, well, straight.

An early workshop at Brown University gave Lee invaluable insight into would-be allies’ entrenched investment in the status quo. Lee was working with undergrads at Brown, “a roomful of women and queer people and minorities.” She asked them for characteristics they associated with straight white men as a group and received a largely negative list. Lee then asked them how they would want from straight white men as individuals to behave instead. They suggested listening, caretaking, letting others step into promotions and leadership roles. Lee worked these characteristics into one of her characters—only to discover that the same students couldn’t stand him: “They thought he was a total loser,” she says. “And that was fascinating.”

The plot of Straight White Men highlights this disjunction between what Lee characterizes as “our desire for social justice on one hand and our desire for things to stay the same on the other.” The play follows three adult sons and their father as they celebrate Christmas together, roughhousing and reminiscing. But alongside this “hyper-naturalistic middle-class family play,” Lee deploys another theatrical technique, suggesting that contrary to what the middle-America knickknacks and comfy chairs evoke, the storytelling reins are in different hands.

Before the show begins, we hear hip hop by female rappers: loud, lewd, and purposely alien to the world of the set. Lee frames the action with another character, a Stagehand in Charge, who is played by an actor who is not a white man. This person welcomes the audience, watches the action, and resets the stage for each scene. Lee puts these two forces in motion—naturalistic play and counterpoint of framing device—for the audience to decode themselves, but the music, the transitions, the presence of the Stagehand in Charge evokes the sense that while the story of the play centers on four straight white men, the show itself is created by people who are not.

Lee herself identifies deeply with each of the straight white men she’s written. Her hope, she says, isn’t to blame or proscribe, to satirize or belittle. Instead she wants to hold herself, and by extension her audiences, accountable for their own complacencies and blind spots. “Because what does it really mean,” she asks, “that in our society we actually despise being a loser more than we despise being, say, a misogynistic jerk? To what extent are we—meaning everybody—complicit in the continuation of unjust circumstances?”

—Adrien-Alice Hansel