Given its provocative title, it’s surprising that Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men takes so long to make a statement.
The show, which is playing at Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. through December 31, is a brisk 90-minute ride through the family life of a bunch of—you guessed it—straight, white men.
Drew (Avery Clark), is the youngest son, a writer who was filled with negativity until he started therapy. Jake (Bruch Reed) is the middle son, a recently-divorced banker who believes in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Matt (Michael Tisdale), the oldest son, is floundering, and currently living at home with their father, Ed (Michael Winters). The boys’s mother (who died some years ago) was socially progressive—the kids grew up playing a modified version of Monopoly called Privilege, wherein players learn about their privilege. The transitions between scenes are overseen by the Stagehand-in-Charge (Jeymee Semiti).
The play is set across three days: December 24, 25, and 26. For the most part, the first two days play out like a CBS sitcom—lots of horseplay and crass jokes. But the performers are so talented, and Lee’s script and Shana Cooper’s direction are so strong, that they create a warm, welcoming environment—so warm and welcoming that it’s easy for the audience to forget that straight, white men are the enemy, at least until the characters bring it up.
The play’s conflict, without giving too much away, focuses on an identity crisis that Matt, the oldest sibling, is undergoing. Jake thinks Matt is unwilling to perpetuate the problem of straight, white maleness and is purposefully taking a backseat in life, while Jake thinks Matt is just unfulfilled. The awful beauty of the play lies in each man’s insistence that he knows what’s wrong with Matt, that he can fix him, that whatever’s wrong with Matt has a simple, easily explainable solution. While Jake undergoes a pretty radical character shift in the play’s final scene, which is a hard pill for the audience to swallow, Lee otherwise nails everything we love and hate about straight, white maleness—a complicated issue if ever there is one.
Lee doesn’t demonize her characters, which might be the easier choice, but instead goes for something trickier to pull off. By titling the play Straight White Men, which, by its very nature, sounds accusatory, and having a non-binary person of color (Semiti) introduce us to the world of the play, Lee sets up a framework where the audience is waiting for, even expecting the title characters to be monsters, evil racist misogynists who probably voted for Trump. But these men are not monsters, they’re the kind of men that theatre-going audiences know in their own personal lives, men who want to be allies, men who are conscious of their privilege, but men who also (intentionally or not) participate in a certain set of typically male behaviors, like a tendency to try and fix everything and an affinity for gross-out humor involving bodily fluids.
All in all, the play is an engaging experience, and an entertaining and thought-provoking night at the theater. It’s a weird time to be a white person who’s trying to be “woke” in America, and Straight White Men captures that feeling spectacularly.
Director: Shana Cooper
Writer: Young Jean Lee
Starring: Avery Clark, Bruch Reed, Michael Tisdale, Michael Winters and Jeymee Semiti
Runs: Through December 31, 2016 at Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.
Katie is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She loves musicals, superhero movies, and romantic comedies, and can be found on Twitter @kbuenneke.