In 'Straight White Men,' A Play Explores The Reality Of Privilege

Nov 17, 2014
Originally published on November 18, 2014 11:40 am

The straight white men of Straight White Men aren't what you might expect. Near the beginning of the new off-Broadway play, two adult brothers play a homemade, family board game, refashioned out of an old Monopoly set. Because the family is liberal and progressive, it's called "Privilege." It makes fun of their own straight-white-male privilege.

"Ah, 'excuses' card!" one of the brothers exclaims. The other reads it aloud. "What I just said wasn't racist/sexist/homophobic because I was joking," he deadpans. "Pay $50 to an LGBT organization."

The playwright, 40-year-old Young Jean Lee, is arguably one of the hottest playwrights in America right now. Her work revels in subverting stereotypes. With Straight White Men, Lee was interested in exploring a problem: What do you do when you've got privilege — and you don't want to abuse it? Lee, who is Korean-American, wanted to create straight white men on stage who think about these things.

"I know they're out there," she says. "I mean, I know them personally. Men are changing."

Lee writes about everybody. Straight white men. Native Americans. Asians. She even wrote a play actually called The Untitled Feminist Show. And in a play from 2008 called The Shipment, she did something that's hard for a nonblack writer to do. It's partly an absurdist sendup of African-American stereotypes seen over and over in movies and on TV. The first half of the play is an over-the-top compendium of cliches. Lee's process is to write plays using her cast to improvise scenes and ideas, and she developed this one with a group of five black actors.

There's also a twist in The Shipment that it would be unfair to reveal, and that captivated New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als.

"Black and white people were confused," he observes. "It was amazing. She was doing something very profound in terms of the ways in which we listen to 'ethnic speech' and 'regular speech.' "

Young Jean Lee writes by listening. When she started working on Straight White Men, she took advantage of being a playwright in residence at Brown University.

"I asked a roomful of women, queer people and minorities, 'What do you want straight men to do? And what do you want them to be like?' " she recalls.

Lee wrote down all of the answers. It boiled down to this: They wanted the straight white male character to sit down and shut up.

"When you hear that around the table, you just feel yourself sinking slowly into the chair," remembers James Stanley, who plays the character created from the list. The character, named Matt, is a sort of idealized straight white male. He works for a not-for-profit and is guided by a sense of trying not to — in his words — "make things worse." Lee and Stanley workshopped the character in front of the students. Who hated him.

"Hated him," Lee said, clearly still surprised. "And I realized that the reason why they hated him was — despite all their commitment to social justice — what they believed in most was not being a loser. [Matt] is exhibiting behavior that gets attributed to people of color: not being assertive, not standing up for himself, always being in a service position."

It's an existential dilemma, Lee says. She had one of her own while working on Straight White Men in the largely white-run world of American theater.

"I can always say, 'Oh, well I'm just pursuing my own ambition, but I'm making the world a better place,' " she says. "Because now there's this Asian female playwright who can be a role model for other artists of color, and I'm helping with diversity. And so I can do whatever I want and sort of get on the good-person list. And it occurred to me as I was doing the show, and listening to people talk about straight white men — straight white men don't really have that option."

Which is not to say that playwright Young Jean Lee thinks straight white men are categorically oppressed. But she likes using theater as a tool to reveal and dismantle our perceptions — of each other and of ourselves. For her, it's a place to check complacency at the door.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

"Straight White Men" - that's the new play by one of the hottest playwrights in American theater right now, 40-year-old Young Jean Lee. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with the Korean-American dramatist about her new show which opens tonight off Broadway.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The "Straight White Men" of straight white men aren't what you might expect. Near the beginning of the play, two adult brothers play a board game. It's called privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "STRAIGHT WHITE MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ah, excuses card.

ULABY: It's a homemade family game like Monopoly but with the tables turned. This family's super liberal and progressive. Their game makes fun of their own straight, white, male privilege.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What I just said wasn't racist slash sexist slash homophobic because I was joking. Pay $50 to an LGBT organization.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Playwright Young Jean Lee enjoys subverting stereotypes. And she was interested in a real problem. What do you do when you've got privilege, and you don't want to abuse it? She wanted to create "Straight White Men" on stage to think about these things.

YOUNG JEAN LEE: And I know they're out there. I mean I know them personally. Men are changing.

ULABY: Lee writes about everybody - straight white men, Native Americans, Asians. She even wrote a play actually called "Untitled Feminist Show." And she did something hard for a non-black writer to do in a play from 2008 called "The Shipment."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SHIPMENT")

MIKEAH ERNEST JENNINGS: (As Michael) Hi, Omar.

AUNDRE CHIN: (As Omar) Hi, Michael.

ULABY: Lee developed "The Shipment" with a group of five African-American actors. That's her process - to write plays using her cast to improvise scenes and dig out truths. "The Shipment" got rave reviews pretty much everywhere it played. It's partly an absurdist send-up of stereotypes you see over and over in movies and on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE SHIPMENT")

JENNINGS: (As Michael) This sucks. Nobody wants to buy drugs from us.

PRENTICE ONAYEMI: (As Desmond) I think something suspicious is going on. Usually everyone wants them. Let me investigate. Crackhead John.

JENNINGS: (As Crackhead John) Yes, Desmond.

ONAYEMI: (As Desmond) Do you know why nobody wants to buy drugs?

JENNINGS: (As Crackhead John) Yes. But what do I get in exchange?

ONAYEMI: (As Desmond) Crack.

JENNINGS: (As Crackhead John) Yay.

ULABY: There's a twist in "The Shipment" that it would be unfair to reveal and that captivated the theater critic for the New Yorker, Hilton Als.

HILTON ALS: Black and white people were confused. It was amazing. She was doing something very profound in terms of the ways in which we listen to quote-unquote, "ethnic speech" and quote-unquote, "regular speech."

ULABY: Young Jean Lee writes by listening. When she started "Straight White Men," she took advantage of being a playwright in residence Brown University.

LEE: I asked him full of women, queer people and minorities - what do you want straight white men to do? And what do you want them to be like?

ULABY: They told her, and Lee wrote it all down. They wanted this character - this ideal straight, white male to sit down and shut up.

LEE: And not try to always be thrusting himself forward - not be assertive - not be aggressive - not think he knows anything constantly aware of his own ignorance - constantly aware of his own privilege - taking a backseat. You know, and a lot of people said just disappear.

JAMES STANLEY: Boy - when you hear that around the table, you just feel yourself sinking slowly into the chair like yeah. I'm a club member. I don't - didn't ask for it. I didn't pay the dues, but here I am in it.

ULABY: James Stanley plays the main character who works at a not-for-profit. He's everything the students wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "STRAIGHT WHITE MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You believe a guy like you is supposed to sit down and shut the [bleep] up, right?

ULABY: In the scene, he's being yelled at by brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "STRAIGHT WHITE MEN")

STANLEY: (As Matt) Nobody's ever told me to shut up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character)Of course not because you've always done such a good job at taking a backseat. Your female and minority coworkers - they probably don't notice that you're there.

ULABY: While Lee was writing the play, she and her actors went back to that room full of students and played out that ideal straight, white male character in front of them.

LEE: And they all just hated him - hated him. And I realized the reason why they hated him was because, despite all their commitment to social justice, what they believed in the most was not being a loser. He is exhibiting behavior that gets attributed to people of color - not being assertive - not standing up for himself - like always being in a service position.

ULABY: And all that made it into the play.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "STRAIGHT WHITE MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're being an ally putting yourself in a service position, right? Making copies for the oppressed?

STANLEY: (As Matt) That's a weird way of putting it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're trying to live in accordance with what you believe. There's nothing that people like us can do in the world that isn't problematic or evil. So we have to make ourselves invisible.

ULABY: It's an existential dilemma Lee says. She had one of her own while writing the play as a Korean-American working in the largely white run world of American theater.

LEE: What was interesting to me in exploring the straight, white male is that I can always say oh well, I'm just pursuing my own ambition. But I'm making the world a better place 'cause now there's this Asian, female playwright who can be a role model for other artists of color. And I'm like helping with diversity. And so like I can just do whatever I want and sort of like get on the good person list. And it occurred to me that as I was doing the show and listening to people talk about straight, white men, straight, white men don't really have that option.

ULABY: Playwright Young Jean Lee hardly thinks straight, white men are categorically oppressed, but she likes using theater to reveal and dismantle our perceptions of each other and ourselves. For her, it's a place to check assumptions at the door. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.