Earlier this year, Lian Low shared a review of the MTC staging of the work, which outlines some of the basics of the play’s premise and plot. Here we welcome new Peril writer, Ashley Ho, to the fold, sharing her “me-view” of the experience in Brisbane at La Boite Theatre.
Straight White Men runs from 27 July-13 August, at La Boite Theatre, Brisbane.
Success, wealth, and happiness. We are always focusing on how to fully achieve these aspects of life in order to make our lives worthy. We’re raised not by our parents, but by society on how to be a particular individual in a particular pair of shoes, shoes that we did not choose.
In Straight White Men, playwright Young Jean Lee uses this “particular” perspective to reveal a societal truth, not only that of the play’s “straight white men”, stirring questions of “who are we, majorities or minorities, as individuals”? What roles do we get to play? Do we ever get to choose? Who is “society”?
The title, Straight White Men, let’s you understand that this is a play that deals with the first-person experience of, well, straight white men.
Each character represents a different aspect of being: one with no serious relationships, Drew; one a successful careerist, Jake; a divorcee, Matt; and a humble, widowed father looking after his sons, Ed, the archetypal well-privileged family. From that premise, the play successfully unravels the deeply hidden struggles of its protagonists, while simultaneously entertaining the audience with silly acts.
The performance starts off with some light, cringe comedy, connecting with me initially, before eventually, I asked myself, “how is this related to social issues that privileged people encounter?” At the moment that question struck me, the play shifted. Straight White Men lured me into a perfect, privileged white life, but it also revealed the hidden truths that each individual faces.
Jake, who works with colleagues who make stupid racist jokes, and ridiculous mockeries, has succeeded by allowing himself to be immersed in his offensive workplace, meeting his daily environment. And so we see, gently, how an environment shapes the person we become, even as we know something is “wrong”, we are usually incapable of looking into a mirror and spotting the wrongs in us.
Where Jake reflects what happens if we do not question our environment or society, Matt mirrors what happens if we do, unraveling the challenges faced as we struggle to find ourselves within a society, wrestling with our individual truths. Lee gives us this so-called privileged perspective, but the struggle could apply to almost any sector of the community.
Ed, the father, discusses how he was brought up, to get a good job, to get married, and to have children. While the sons are initially defensive of these ideas, we later suspect that they desire their traditional stabilities.
It was Matt’s who had the greatest impact on me, as I find myself stuck in a situation where I don’t know whether I should pursue a career that is economically driven or a career that strives to “make a difference”. Watching Matt’s depression as he compares himself to his brothers and father, his cohort of straight white men, I empathized with the desire to hide and cry, the feeling of inescapable dilemma, the fear and embarrassment and shame. But, I would also like to emphasise that, Matt’s situation surely does not only appears to straight white men, but rather everyone, privileged or unprivileged.
I was born in a Canadian community, as a Chinese woman – hardly the straight white man – and yet, just as these straight white men, my struggle with identity is frustrating and ongoing. I want to be my own individual without anyone shaping me, and I guess in a more selfish way, I want to be an individual not influenced by anything or anyone, but rather developed through my own self.
Still, I see myself battling against society and family traditions, such as finding a husband or partner, a particular area where my family and I differ. These family traditions are not going to change just because I believe in something different, and am too stubborn to accept them, so what can I do? In each new generation, we are usually trying breaking free from what our parents went through, especially when we are born in a minority family.
And yet what we can see in this extraordinary performance, is a majority family wrestling with traditional values, still passed along the generational lines, even as sometimes we try to deny it.
The script is fantastically written and connects well with the audience. There are moments of easy comedy that will reach a broad audience, allowing you to sit in the living room as if another family member. When the serious conversations kick in, the connection is strong enough to send the message, blending comedy and drama to portray the weighty social issues flagged in the programme. These shifts from comedy to drama are sometimes sudden, catching the audience by surprise, but the staging provides the audience with its own space in the story, enhancing the quality of the performances.
Everyone’s always trying to be privileged in a society, but Straight White Men left me asking, “is there really a privileged class?”
As a minority in a community, I would not have thought of the struggles faced by straight white men, yet this impressive performance reminded me that every individual is fighting their own battle, largely invisible to us most of the time, each of us in no position to judge another, because we do not stand in their particular shoes.