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

Gary Wilmes, James Stanley and Pete Simpson star in Young Jean Lee's <em>Straight White Men. </em>
Julieta Cervantes
Gary Wilmes, James Stanley and Pete Simpson star in Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men.

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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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.