From the Spring 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Writing a play about straight, White men was the last thing playwright Young Jean Lee ever wanted to do...so that's exactly why she did it.
Apparently, the inspiration a writer discovers when pushing beyond their comfort zones can sometimes reveal wondrous surprises, so part of her process embraces just what it is she really wants to do the least. Lee explains, “When starting a play, I ask myself, 'What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?' Then I force myself to make it.”
The resulting work, Straight White Men (on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 19), is about exactly who you'd imagine—four straight, White guys. There's a lot of theater about that particular group of society, so why make more? Don't we know enough about them?
Perhaps not, and Young Jean Lee decided she was up to challenging the genre—even if she ended up challenging only herself.
“Going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places,” she told me. “I feel a lot of resistance towards the idea of identity-politics art, which is why I make so much of it. For Straight White Men, I asked myself, 'What’s the last identity I would ever want to make an identity-politics show about?'”
For audiences familiar with Lee's other work, Straight White Men might be a bit of a surprise. Not because it's avant garde, but because it's the exact opposite: it's a play with a beginning, middle and end. It's as traditional as traditional can be, and that's no mistake.
“I saw the traditional three-act structure as the 'straight White male' of theatrical forms, or the form that has historically been used to present straight White male narratives as universal,” explains Lee. “And I thought it would be interesting to explore the boundaries of that form at the same time as its content.”
As a result, Straight White Men is an incredibly accessible play, and on its surface it's pretty straightforward. A widower and his three sons get together for Christmas and settle right into their familiar roles: the successful one, the mostly successful one, the “loser” living at home, and the dad who's done his best to raise them all well.
There's plenty of teasing and rough-housing, plus lots of those secret conversations family members have with one another. Those “What are we going to do about...?” kinds of chats that allow the audience to learn what the characters really think. The kinds of conversations that pierce Straight White Men's approachable facade and ask us to go on a journey of our own right along with the characters.
Through the course of these discussions—discussions that likely feel familiar to many—Straight White Men becomes not only a challenge for its playwright but for audiences, too—not in a preachy, instructive way. Rather, Lee and the other artists she's collaborating with ask us what we really want from these characters and from the straight, White men we know in real life?
Says Lee, “I wanted the audience to feel all kinds of emotions and have all kinds of questions—I definitely wasn’t trying to send a message about straight White men. For me, it was more like, 'If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight White man, what would I do?' If I were to wake up with my own brain in a straight White male body, it would be completely problematic—it would just be, you know, what would I do? And that was the starting point.”
The question of what to do is definitely the starting point for Straight White Men, but audiences shouldn't expect an answer. None of the characters really figure it out either.
Lee points out, “The play isn't trying to provide an answer to the question of what straight White men should do; it's more looking at a fundamental problem within the discourse of cultural politics that affects all of us.”
With so many big, cultural questions, Lee does just what she usually does—she includes a wide array of actors and artists in her writing process to help address those concerns.
She explains, “With all my shows, I cast the show first, and then write it in collaboration with the performers, my artistic team and workshop audiences. Normally we talk about stuff in rehearsal, and then, based on what we talk about, I go home and write. I come in with whatever I’ve written, and that’s when everyone pitches in.”
That collaboration has been especially important to this particular project.
Lee adds, “Straight White Men was a little different, because I didn’t know how to write naturalistic dialogue. The actors were a huge part of writing this piece for me. Particularly important in the early writing stages was the ability to observe the speech and behavior patterns of straight White men while in the presence of other straight White men.”
But that collaborative process didn’t stop there. Because Straight White Men is taking a good hard look at those titular characters, Lee spent a lot of time figuring out just what questions her play should tackle—especially the question of what do we expect out of straight White men?
That issue is examined through all four characters but particularly through Matt, the brother who lives at home, works part time, and strives to uphold his parents' progressive values to a fault.
Lee recalls, “The character of Matt came out of a workshop that I was doing with students at a university. There was a room full of students, people of color and queer people, a very diverse room. And they started talking very harshly about straight White men. I said, 'Okay. Now I know all the things you don’t like about straight White men. Why don’t you give me a list of the things you wished straight White men would do that would make you hate them less?'”
She continues, “So they told me all these things, and I wrote down the whole list, and then I wrote that character, and they hated him. They hated him because he was a loser. And that’s what made me realize that, in spite of all these social-justice values, in our peer group, being a loser is worse than being an asshole. It kind of revealed our continuing investment in the patriarchy. So the audience is supposed to get trapped in this kind of bind, this disjunction between the desire for social justice and the desire for things to stay the same, for people not to be losers, to be aligned with power.”
In addition to writing the new work, Lee is also directing this production. And the same spirit of collaboration that informed and contributed to the script itself is at the very heart of her directing style.
“My process is extremely collaborative,” says Lee. “I’m like the captain steering the ship guiding things, but everyone in the room is always participating. Including assistants, interns, stage management—whoever is involved. Everyone has a voice in the room, and we’re all working together.”
It's not surprising that someone as collaborative as Lee also has an artist with whom she especially enjoys working. “I’ve had the same dramaturg my entire career—his name is Mike Farry, and he’s worked on every show I’ve ever done,” Lee reveals. “We work really, really closely together on every script.”
While her process is somewhat unusual, what's especially unique is that her desire to collaborate goes well beyond the writing room or the rehearsal hall. She takes it out into the world.
“Every play has such a team behind it” Lee explains. “And not just my immediate collaborators, but friends and people outside: test audiences, Facebook friends…there’s so much testing that happens, and so much asking people for their ideas and opinions. I see myself more as the catalyst for this giant experiment, rather than someone who is coming up with all the ideas. The reason why it’s important for me to talk about that is that normally, the model is that the writer writes alone in a room, and then the director and the collaborators come in. I really don’t work that way. And just because of the way things are, people tend to assume that I’ve come up with everything myself, but it’s not true. There are so many people—every show requires so much generosity from so many people. Nobody is just sticking to their role—everyone is doing more than what would normally be expected of them.”
Straight White Men is a play developed collaboratively—a play that, in a way, asks us to consider how we want to collaborate as a society. Whether a loser or an asshole, perhaps the answer to what we really want from everyone around us lies more in this process of working together, collaboratively. Perhaps there’s something to Young Jean Lee’s creativity that gets to the heart of matter of why Straight White Men touches something in all of us.
Straight White Men runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 19.
By Leslie Price
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Playwright and director Young Jean Lee in rehearsals for her play, Straight White Men, at Steppenwolf Theatre (photo by Joel Moorman).