Arts & Culture

It’s raining (straight, white) men in Leeds

Sock and Buskin presents a play in progress by experimental playwright Young Jean Lee

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 5, 2013

If you are at all familiar with the work of Young Jean Lee, “the most adventurous playwright of her generation,” according to the New York Times, you might be surprised that her latest project is set in a tidy, middle-class living room occupied by four straight, white men.

But Sock and Buskin’s latest offering, “Straight White Men,” a play in progress written and directed by Lee, subverts audience expectations, challenging viewers to engage with their prejudices about drama, race relations and gender politics.

The play is in the early stages of an ongoing development process — Lee has spent the last six weeks in residency writing in dialogue with members of the cast and production.

“Most of the script was developed out of improv and discussions with my cast, crew, dramaturg, associate director, assistant directors and dramaturgical board,” Lee wrote in an email to The Herald. “I directed the process and put the script together, but it was intensely collaborative.”

Lee is no stranger to uncomfortable conversations and taboo material. “When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’” she wrote. “Then I force myself to make it.”

Previously, she and her eponymous OBIE Award-winning theater company examined black identity politics in “The Shipment,” feminism and body image in “The Untitled Feminist Show” and Asian-American identity in “Song of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” according to her website.

“Straight White Men” is her latest effort, and Brown was a place to experiment with and develop her script, Lee wrote.

“It will have a bunch more workshops. Then it’ll premiere at the Wexner Center in Ohio, tour internationally, premiere in New York in fall 2014 and then tour internationally some more,” she added.

“I’m so impressed by the students at Brown,” Lee wrote. “They’re so perfectionistic yet have a uniquely pleasant vibe and don’t seem as depressingly neurotic as students on other campuses.”

The play as it stands now centers on three adult brothers — Matt, Jake and Drew, played by William Peterson ’14, Gerrit Thurston ’13 and Michael Chiboucas ’13.5 respectively — spending Christmas with their father, Ed, played by Zachary Segel ’13. Lee used the “well-made play,” a 19th-century dramatic genre, as a starting point for examining the straight, white, male identity, she wrote.

Lee has worked on plays with nontraditional formats, Segel said. “But she chose to explore the topic of privilege and straight white maleness with naturalism and realism, because that’s kind of the straight white male of theater genres.”

“I ended up sort of half-obeying the conventions in a way that doesn’t really work yet,” Lee said.

This production is set in a living room adorned with upper-middle-class kitsch. There’s a table with expensive liquors, a fireplace hung with equidistant stockings and a rocking chair in the corner bearing the Harvard insignia. At one point, audience members hear the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group, singing Christmas carols.

The current iteration of the plot centers on Matt, the 44-year-old brother who has moved back in with his widowed father after finding himself unable to finish either Harvard Law School or a Ph.D. program in Russian Literature. Jake suggests the explanation for his failures lies in his experiences at his liberal arts college, where he was “brainwashed” by “ethnic studies classes.”

“How does privilege work? What happens when one rejects his privilege and what does that look like?” asked Jarrett Key ’13, assistant director. “That became the basic frame for Matt.”

The central puzzle Lee has set for herself seems to be why we should be interested in watching straight, white men talk about these issues at all. “The most challenging part was trying to make anyone care about my subject matter,” Lee said. “I still haven’t quite figured out how to pull that off.”

“As soon as we start talking about politics, you can feel the audience cross their legs and say, ‘Well here we are, this is the patriarchy talking to me,’” Thurston said. “Which is amazing, because it’s not. It’s Young Jean Lee talking to you.”

“Straight White Men” runs April 4-7, 10-12 and 14 in Leeds theater at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m Sundays.

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