Though Young Jean Lee’s play STRAIGHT WHITE MEN—now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company—primarily concerns itself with characters befitting its title, the piece opens with two gender non-conforming performers (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm) holding a pre-show dance party to loud, expletive-ridden music. Once the show begins, Elliott and Will inform us that the music was made to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and for those who were less bothered by the experience, that’s privilege. Of course, the notion of privilege—and particularly the privilege bestowed upon straight white men in American society—is one of the major themes in the play, and that moment creates a microcosm of that exploration. Elliott and Will continue to tell audiences about the “rules” of the play, creating a rather Brechtian frame for what unfolds as a realistic family drama about a father and his three sons who reunite at Christmas. And thus, even as Lee (who is a Korean American woman) probes the notion of privilege and the responsibilities that come along with it, she does so with a sympathetic eye towards her multi-dimensional characters.
After finishing their introductory speech, Elliott and Will then set the stage for this family story by literally placing the actors on stage—as they do at the top of each scene. And while it is not made entirely extant, Lee’s play could potentially be read as a literal performance of what it means to be straight, white, and male through the eyes of these two gender non-conforming actors. It’s an interesting device, though I wish the purpose would be made yet clearer. This does though add to Lee’s theme that like many other socially constructed roles, the role of straight white male is indeed performative.
And it is exactly this pressure to drill down on what exactly should be the responsibility of the straight white male with which the three brothers in this piece struggle. As we learn in the play, all three men were raised with a keen understanding of their privilege—a value that their mother deeply wished to impart upon them and their father, Ed (Alan Wilder) as well, though his own understanding may be less astute. And thus, by the time we meet Drew (Ryan Hallahan), Jake (Madison Dirks), and Matt (Brian Slaten) each has chosen to interpret the responsibility of exactly what to do with their privilege differently. Drew, the youngest sibling, has forged a career as a successful tenured professor and novelist. Jake is a wealthy investment banker with two children who is recently divorced from his black wife, Olivia. And then there’s Matt, a Harvard graduate and Stanford PhD dropout who has recently moved back home and taken a temp role at a non-profit—and claims he’s content. When Drew and Jake, who feel that they have taken acceptable paths given their straight white maleness, find out about Matt’s situation, they’re not quite sure what to do.
In contemplating this, Lee lays bare the central question of the play: What responsibility do we owe the world because of our privilege and our identity? Can we truly change the system? And she seems to ask more broadly: What is the point of human existence? That is a question that applies, of course, not only to the characters in the play but to the audience.
As Lee (who also directs) explores these overarching questions, however, she has also constructed a lovely family drama. All of the action occurs on David Evans Morris’s brilliantly detailed family room set, which feels undeniably lived in. As brothers, Hallahan, Dirks, and Slaten have an incredibly natural rapport, and Lee offers many opportunities for these actors to demonstrate the complexity and affection in their sibling relationship. These actors truly make us believe that they have grown up together. While Wilder is sweet and caring as Ed, he does feel like he’s on a different energy level from his fellow actors. And though there are many moments that reinforce the sibling bond in STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, I think Lee could still cut down some of the material to drill down on the major themes sooner. While the portrayal of these siblings is achingly realistic, all these individual moments don’t necessarily contribute to our overall understanding of the play.
Overall Lee has written a unique and sympathetic (though also incredibly cynical) piece in STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, which has been revised since its 2014 world premiere at The Public Theater. She opens up a number of fascinating and timely questions about privilege and what it means to perform a particular role in society—the idea of taking the identity of “straight white male” and drilling down on the ways in which that, too, is performative and has a powerful impact. And though the play could use some tightening still, it certainly has themes and moments that will stay with me.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN runs through March 19 in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $20-$89. For more information, visit Steppenwolf.org.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Read the original review on PerformInk.