Placing white privilege on the table for 90 minutes


Theatre review: Melbourne Theatre Company’s Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee

Straight White Men begins on Christmas Eve. Jake, a wealthy banker and his younger brother Drew, a political novelist and teacher are visiting their widower father, Ed’s home. Matt, their other brother has moved back into Ed’s house because he can’t afford to pay back his student loans with his admin job.

MTC_STRAIGHT WHITE MEN_photo Jeff Busby_1249 (1)
Photo: Jeff Busby. (L-R) Hamish Michael, Luke Ryan, John Gaden, Gareth Reeves

The homecoming is joyful and playful, with lots of affectionate banter; until Matt breaks down sobbing inconsolably in the midst of the family’s merrymaking.

Here the play unravels its exploration on straight white men’s privilege.

Diversity is often bandied around in policies, programs, festivals and organisations as an issue to be solved. However, very rarely does white privilege get scrutinised or perceived as an issue in this thinking. Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee deftly crafts a witty script that keeps actors and audience on our toes. There’s no bashing on the head about white privilege, but a thoughtful and funny examination about a white, Western, middle-class phenomenon.

Photo: Jeff Busby With: Gareth Reeves, Hamish Michael, Luke Ryan, John Gaden
Photo: Jeff Busby
(L-R): Gareth Reeves, Hamish Michael, Luke Ryan, John Gaden

Straight White Men is not about war or extreme violence, there is no one in the play who is an arsehole, they are all seemingly nice straight white guys. The men in the play could be a neighbour, a friend, a theatre reviewer, someone that we may know.

At $109 for a premium stalls seat, this isn’t accessbile theatre. However, if theatre can be a reflection of its audience, then this is a perfect program choice for Melbourne Theatre Company’s audience – a dominantlly middle-class white crowd.

The actors – John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Gareth Reeves and Luke Ryan were cast perfectly for their roles. Under Sarah Giles’ direction, the realism of the scenes was never sensationalised. The way the drama unfolded took you by surprise, at one scene you could be laughing ironically at a musical number that was trying to be ironically racist and then watch with expectation when something more serious unfolds at the next beat. The lounge room set had the lovely feel of a comfortable and lived-in home beautifully designed by Eugyeene Teh.

Straight White Men is a clever, bold and funny study on a privileged racial group that’s rarely examined. It raises the quandary about social change not benefitting straight white men, however, privileging the oppressed – women, queers and minorities. And if this is so, why would straight white men give up the status quo? For one and a half hours, white privilege is placed on a table in a way that some audience members would not give a thought to. And for that this work is genius.

Currently playing at the Victorian Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio until 18 June.

Ticket details via Melbourne Theatre Company

Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist.She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016.Find her on and Twitter @Lian__Low