Dallas — If you follow downtown theatre in New York, you’re bound to have a conversation about or at least mention the work of Young Jean Lee. As a playwright and director, she produced notable works through her theatre company including Untitled Feminist Show, Lear, We’re Gonna Die, and The Shipment. As her works vary widely from racism to feminism, the stylistic qualities of a Young Jean Lee performance embrace bold postmodernism and challenge the audience to consider how their world has been constructed. (DFW audiences have seen her plays The Appeal and The Shipment at Undermain Theatre.)
Straight White Men, which is currently having its area premiere by Second Thought Theatre, is no different, and yet…it is. It’s realism. Within the context of DFW theatre, a realistic play does not seem to be a noteworthy entity. But why? A play following the rules of realism actually contains a significant power structure between the watcher and the watched, the subject and the observer. Who gets to speak? Whose story gets to be deemed valuable enough to be told? Who gets the opportunity to be shown in three dimensions? This form of theatre that has been under the control of primarily straight white men, and this is how Lee chooses to create a play about this particular identity.
What is a Straight White Man? How does one operate as a Straight White Man in a culture that has offered you the most privilege? How do you separate the baggage that is associated with that identity from the individual himself? What if you can’t see that privilege, even when it is sitting right in front of your nose? Reflecting on these questions with several collaborators, Lee arrived at a naturalistic theatrical event which points to the problematic nature of privilege.
When Lee creates new plays, she utilizes a highly collaborative process to dig into the subject matter. For Straight White Men, Lee created the piece with Ivy League students, four straight white men and an array of assistant directors who were all women and/or people of color. They started the process by simply talking about their perceptions of straight white men, and they discovered that a number of negative associations are attached to that identity. Through this inquiry and sharing of observations, Lee developed the text in tandem with these collaborators. Lee notes that she creates in this way, writing with the actors in the immediate workshop or production, as it allows the performers to have more investment with the performance. Through the professional productions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, The Public Theater in NYC, and Steppenwolf in Chicago, Lee has continued to interrogate the topic and characters with each company of performers, adjusting the script each time—notably in the recent Steppenwolf production that she directed after the presidential election.
It’s a remarkable approach within a theatrical culture that emphasizes the set nature of the text, and that an actor’s primary role is to interpret the script and leave structure and dialogue to the playwright.
While Straight White Men operates within the rules of naturalism, the preshow music has received volatile responses. Lee notes that the choice has good intentions, the decision was made to introduce The Public’s audience into Lee’s theatrical environment. “The music was nothing louder than what you would experience in the club,” Lee notes on the hip-hop music by female rappers. However, some subscribers angrily complained about the volume and music style. Was it the volume or was it a woman’s voice? I’m curious to know the origin of their complaints. Hearing this music prior to the performance establishes that this story of Straight White Men will be seen through another person’s lens, one that does not occupy the same sphere of privilege as the characters on stage.
Lee notes the subversive elements of Straight White Men may not be picked up be everyone, and that’s fine. “They may not resonate immediately, but they will keep thinking about moments for months to come.”
There’s a current beneath the surface at work in the play, one that hits some immediately and others not until much later. Perhaps it just depends where you happen to land in the game of privilege.