World Stage presents the Toronto premiere of Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men
Fact: white privilege, heterosexual privilege and male privilege all exist and together they give straight, white males countless systemic advantages in society.
If that statement isn’t a truism to you, you should probably just stop reading now and move on; none of the rest of this review or this play will make much sense to you. American playwright Young Jean Lee’s new play Straight White Men is a timely, relevant, subversive and remarkably insightful exploration of the concept of privilege from the point of view of its beneficiaries.
In a recent conversation about privilege, a straight, white male friend told me, “I know that being a straight, white, cis-gendered man has helped me in innumerable ways. I agree that it’s wrong but if I’m given an advantage for being born who I am, what am I to do? Most of the time neither myself nor the people giving me the advantage are aware that it’s even happening. Shit’s complex, is what I’m saying here.” That sentiment is the crux of the issue Young Jean Lee explores in Straight White Men.
The straight, white men of the title are an upper middle-class American family; Ed, the elderly father (Richard Riehle), is hosting his three middle-aged sons at Christmastime. From oldest to youngest, Matt (Scott Shepherd), Jake (Patch Darragh), and Drew (Frank Boyd) play video games, trade casual insults and roughhouse.
The family engages in realistic-sounding banter peppered with chuckle-inducing moments of light comedy in a hyper-realistic suburban family room set, designed by David Evans Morris, that’s reminiscent of a ‘90s sitcom. In fact, at the start, the play superficially feels like Two-and-a-Half-Men. The brothers come across as typical dude-bros except they’re all socially conscious to varying degrees.
When Matt has an unexpected breakdown it serves as a catalyst for the family to delve into a vigorous debate around some deep issues like white privilege, white guilt and the existential crisis that comes with being a self-aware straight white male.
The first thing that fascinates me about Straight White Men is what it’s not. The play isn’t a satire, at least not in the traditional sense; the four straight, white men of the title are not caricatured as clueless, oafish examples of “the man”. The characters are played sympathetically, aware of their privilege and earnestly coming to terms with what it means to have it. It ends on a sad note and I truly empathized and felt badly for the characters in the end.
I really love the subtle but clever ways in which the play subverts societal norms by inverting them. Privilege is what allows a straight, white male playwright like David Mamet to feel imminently qualified to write about race and gender politics. But for Straight White Men, we have a playwright in Lee who is a woman of colour assuming the voice of straight, white men to write a show speaking on their behalf. It’s intentional reverse cultural appropriation.
However, it was absolutely necessary for a female playwright of colour to write this script to start the discussion on how self-aware straight, white males grapple with their own privilege. Had a straight, white male playwright written this exact same play it would’ve come off as indulgent and apologist even though the issues explored are complex and worthy of discourse.
The meta aspects of the presentation of the play seem explicitly designed not to appeal to straight, white males. Loud, sexually explicit rap music by female rappers plays in the auditorium before the show and a stage manager, a non-gender-conforming female of colour, greets the audience at the top of the play as if to make the space appeal to queer, women of colour by default. Much like society at large is geared to make straight, white males most comfortable; a notion that’s turned on its head here.
Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men is a timely, relevant, insightful and subversive work that deftly explores the important issues of the day from an unexpected point of view and with a remarkable level of depth. It’ll definitely make you think and may even challenge your world view. It’s well worth watching.
- Straight White Men is playing from June 3 to 6, 2015 at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, 231 Queen’s Quay West in Toronto.
- Shows run Wedneday to Saturday at 8 p.m.
- Tickets ($35 to $45) are available at the on-site box office, by phone 416-973-4000 or visit harbourfrontcentre.com/worldstage
Photo of Richard Riehle, Patch Darragh, Frank Boyd, and Scott Shepherd by Brian Medina