Monday, January 22, 2018

WET Presents “Straight White Men”

Frank Boyd in Straight White Men (Chris Bennion)
Straight White Men
Washington Ensemble Theatre
Through February 2, 2018

Washington Ensemble Theatre just had something fairly unprecedented happen to them: their first show of 2018 was completely sold out for the entire run as of opening weekend! Straight White Men, by Young Jean Lee, had a couple of extra performances added but with that kind of demand, the only way you might see the production is if you choose to go and get on a wait-list for a performance.

Young Jean Lee is a genre-breaking playwright/performer who has come here on occasion with riveting shows hosted by On the Boards. Her pieces are exactly what On the Boards is famous for around here – like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Perhaps the sales are a reflection of her fame and draw. Perhaps it’s the topic – a hot one of white privilege.
I was interested in whether a YJL piece is “translatable” from her crack company that understands her esthetic exactly to “someone else” – really anyone not Young Jean Lee and her team. I have my doubts. It’s not easy to see something brand new and try to imagine it “as if”. In this case, I do not doubt that WET and the cast and crew are extremely invested in creating an edgy and forward experience that mirrors the experience of having Lee here.

The upshot of the evening is mixed. Most of the play is a very boring portrayal of a dad and three sons all together for Christmas. To a significant extent, it seems intentional that it’s boring. The difficulty here is that I wonder how boring it would be if it were done by YJL’s company itself.

Why is it intentionally boring? Well, we watch some purported cis-white men interact about little or nothing in very “bro” ways – the brothers tease each other unmercifully, they reminisce about their past, they bring up embarrassing memories, they call each other terrible childhood names. Those of us who are not cis-white males, which is most of the audience, have to “tolerate” their story, hoping to get something out of it.

The family itself does not set off to be boring – each character tries to be his own self. They talk about their wife/mother dying, struggle to figure out how to be adults, and even talk about “privilege” a bit! One of the more interesting bits is a blast-from-the-past where the oldest son supposedly wrote a protest lyric to the song “Oklahoma” because his high school cast an all-white version of the musical, at that time. Those lyrics are quite great.

However, the embedded notion is that when white men tell their tales, which is almost all the time, most of the rest of us are supposed to identify anyway, as if the story is “universal.” But the production envelops this “usual” play with rap music, and two guides who are Persons in Charge and who are not straight white men. To some extent, that setting creates an opportunity for the audience to ask different questions than usual and to explore their reactions to that usual, boring story.

A central characterization is that the oldest son, who has a Harvard education and is expected to be prodigal, has returned home to keep house for Dad and become a clerical worker in a non-profit. While his family tries to psychoanalyze him, their expectations are that the investment in his education and his innate capabilities mean that he is “wasted” at those activities, even as he maintains that he is satisfied and feels like he has a purpose. It’s obvious, then, that what he does is done by millions of women, often, who find purpose in being “useful” in very similar ways and who are accepted and expected in those roles.

Some audience members will find themselves “sorry for” this character – and it may even take a talk-back for them to recognize that if they feel sorry for him, they might then also feel “sorry for” the millions of women whose lives are “used” this way. In fact, it harkens back to the idea that women, some 40 or 50 years ago, should not aspire to Harvard educations if they would subsequently “waste it” on staying home and making babies.

I just wish YJL would have made all the same points in an hour instead of an hour and a half. Or maybe that her company would have done the show, too, so I could experience whether the company production itself makes any difference.

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