I left Straight White Men feeling like I had a really great time but I also felt awkward about having a great time and what that might mean. As a white, middle-class person, and as someone with knows straight white men, I could identify with the characters and their problems on a few levels. I laughed at the jokes, squirmed under the family scrutiny, and appreciated how familiar these characters felt. When the lights came up at the end of the show, my partner even said: “I don’t want it to be over.” But we were unclear with what the “thought” of the play was because it didn’t come to a resolution so much as… end.
This subtle discomfort is where playwright Young Jean Lee’s brilliance comes through. With a title like Straight White Men and today’s increased difficulty when it comes to having a civil discourse, you might be thinking this play is going to bash straight white men. It doesn’t. What it does instead is examine what it means to live with the privileges associated with those identities in today’s social climate. After a few days of reflection, reading past reviews, interviews, and engaging in personal reflection, I’m realizing that it’s a play designed to raise questions more than offer answers. This play performs the most essential function of theatre: to question yourself, and does so in a way that might actually get audiences to.
There are a lot of great reviews for Straight White Men, and I mean that in the “Go see this show!” sense and in terms of well-written reviews. I wouldn’t have been waiting since 2014 and paid for a Broadway show if it wasn’t receiving positive critical acclaim. There are equally tantalizing profiles of the playwright and her daring style too. But what I’m noticing is that each review seems to be focused on the titular straight white men or the playwright, and mentioning in passing or more likely not at all, the “other” characters of which there are two: “Person in Charge 1” and “Person in Charge 2”.
Making our way into the theatre, my partner and I were greeted by a curtain that looked like Christmas tree tinsel and explicit female rap preshow music throbbed around us. We were bopping around in our seats and reading the notes when someone in a tye dye jumpsuit and luscious brown hair stood up a few rows down from us. They noted that we liked the music and asked us how we were doing. A Portlander now, I assumed this friendliness was just someone genuinely wanting to make a connection with new people, but it was actually performer Ty Defoe. Not long after, he hopped up on stage with Kate Bornstein to introduce himself and give a little insight into what we were about to experience.
“Before we begin the show, we would like to acknowledge that our pre-show music may have made some of you uncomfortable. And normally when you pay money, you can expect to feel comfortable. We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account. For those of you who liked or didn’t mind the music, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience. We wanted to make sure you’d feel welcome in this theatre. Congratulations on your moment of privilege.”
Dafoe smiles easily and proceeds to introduce himself as a Giizhiig, Ojibwe, and Onieda Nations person, as well as two-spirit and mentioned how he is considered a “rock star” among his people for this fact. Bornstein is perhaps more well known by some in the audience, mentions how she’s from New Jersey, Jewish, and nonbinary. Both established writers and performers, they mention how for folks like them, doing a show called Straight White Men may seem a little confusing. These are three things they are not, after all. But as an audience member, I trusted that it would make sense.
“From here on out, everything will proceed as one might expect.” They tell us, alluding to the typical conventions of theatre and later I realize, the normcore and non sensationalized tone of the play. From this moment on, the people in charge have no other lines but are present in every scene change. They become careful directors for the straight white men: positioning them on couches with video game controllers, laying them down on sofas, and opening their mouth in preparation for a snore.
Lee, the first Asian-American playwright produced on Broadway, tells The Guardian, “I added a transgender/queer non-straight-white-male character to be the announcer at the beginning of the show and to direct the transitions (which are lit) to show that a non-straight-white-male was running the show.” Most reviews I’ve read, however, fail to mention the actors or the implications on their presence on stage. These two characters are effectively telling the story of straight white men. If not for them, the characters would not be physically on stage, this story would not be told. Why are we not asking ourselves to consider the significance of this choice? Each review reflects on the idea of privilege and how power is (slowly) shifting away from straight white men while forgetting where the power is shifting towards though we can see it plainly on stage.
By moving around the audience during the pre-show and engaging in conversation with patrons, there’s an implication that Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2 are actually “real” people. By sharing physical space and engaging in conversation, they became accessible to audience members. I never got the chance to have a relationship with the straight white men because they are put up on stage, a space that I am not allowed to enter, and told to ignore me. This matters to the rest of the show because it solidifies the idea that this show wasn’t meant to welcome the status quo, it was meant to redefine it.
The transfer of power that’s occurred is not just the loss of it for our protagonists. Because the people in charge are not straight, not white, or male the story is crafted from an outsider’s perspective which is why it features an empathetic tone. There’s no judgment that comes down from Person in Charge 1 or 2, the judgment comes exclusively from the family unit and from the society the straight white men tell us about. It’s the same society we are a part of and where our judgments come from. Only insiders can speak the most biting lines and the harshest criticism, the outsiders simply do not know enough about this world to do the same. Nonetheless, the People in Charge are the antagonists. If the conflict is how to live a successful life while also being inclusive as a straight white man, then the not straight, not white, not male actors are the antagonists. They are the ones creating the obstacles while recreating the world.
Queers, indigenous peoples, everyone who isn’t a straight white man, are creating conflict for straight white men and more broadly, the status quo by becoming more visible. They are forcing the rules to change and for us to ask new questions about how we live as individuals and as a collective. Visibility equates to power, but only if we actually see, as exemplified by past reviews of Straight White Men.