Arts & Culture

‘Straight White Men’ probes race, gender

Play developed by TAPS explores privilege through family interactions without oversimplifying

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The domestic dramedy ‘Straight White Men’ tells the story of three brothers and their father who share traditions like eating Chinese food on the sofa, but differ in their experiences with white privilege and social justice.

“Straight White Men,” playing in repertory at the Wilbury Theatre Group, delivers bold and lacerating insight into privilege and what it means to be “woke” in the world today through the lens of domestic dramedy.

Developed in Brown’s Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies in 2013, the play comes from a political era in which the eponymous demographic seemed to be slowly losing some of its dominance in American society. But the Wilbury production arrives at a critically different time. Not only has the demographic reasserted its dominance nationally via the election of a man who carries whiteness and maleness to terrifying extremes, but it has done so under the perversely twisted guise of a forgotten class proudly reclaiming its place. From long magazine features to cable news conventional wisdom, the narrative of the tragically misunderstood Trump voter has become ubiquitous.

Yet “Straight White Men,” despite having only white, male and presumably straight characters, escapes this wrongheaded genre of social commentary. “More than anything, I admire the way (the playwright) Young Jean Lee is so committed to challenging audiences and creates characters that we can all relate to … even when they may not be the nicest people,” wrote Josh Short, the artistic director of the Wilbury, in an email to The Herald. Indeed, the four characters do not provoke easy reactions; socially aware but still problematic, loving but sometimes insensitive, the characters whir with complexity.

The show opens as one character, Jake — played by Short — plays a videogame while his brother, Drew — portrayed by Gunnar Manchester — darts around the stage, singing loudly in an attempt to annoy him. Soon after, the oldest brother, Matt — played by Dave Rabinow — along with their father, Ed — played by Roger Lemelin — enter, and the family unit begins to emerge.

We learn about how Matt got the high school drama teacher fired for only casting white people in “Oklahoma!” and hear Drew’s teenage journal entry entitled “Why I Hate People.” The presence of their late mother is also felt, as we learn that she had reworked Monopoly into a board game called ‘Privilege’ and impressed upon her children the importance of social justice.

The members of the family all seem to have taken heed of this message, albeit to different degrees. Jake, a brashly masculine banker, is well versed in the language of social justice, talking oppression and privilege with ease, but he admits to employing an all-white team of bankers because he believes that is what his clients want. Drew, a writer and professor, believes that he helps the world through teaching and his political novels. Jake sees that as a bubble in need of popping, saying, “How is being another white guy with tenure making a difference?”

Matt takes his awareness to another level and forms the emotional center of the play. With two Ivy League degrees, he was once seen as the most promising son of the family, but now he works a low-level temp job at a nonprofit. As he explains it, he just wants “to be useful.” In Matt, Lee has created a character who is so aware of his privilege, he can’t do anything without thinking about the ways it perpetuates oppression. As Matt, Rabinow delivers a tender and finely tuned performance.

The play operates on two intimately entwined levels: one a warm-hearted family portrait, the other a thoughtful dive into white privilege and all that it means. The former proves to be the weaker link, occasionally leaving the latter looking bare and didactic. The family — and the three brothers especially — have a seemingly endless cache of inside jokes, nostalgia trips and cute traditions. While some are touching and funny, such as when all four men cram onto the couch to eat Chinese take-out, they eventually grow tiresome. Lee seems to substitute these antics for deeper ways of drawing a family on stage. Though the director Vince Petronio stages the play intelligently, he also could have emphasized the family dynamic more gracefully.

The cast, too, occasionally forgoes subtlety and overacts but generally performs well. As Jake, Short struts about the stage, gleefully obnoxious. Manchester, as Drew, makes less of an impression but nonetheless fashions a believable character in his young novelist. Lemelin, as Ed, comes across as a little stiff, but in the context of his character, it’s easy to brush off as just an endearing quirk of the family patriarch.

Around the edges of the play floats a character, Stagehand-in-Charge —Daraja Hinds — who is neither white nor male. She does not take part in any of the action in the play, but instead welcomes the audience, acts as the run crew and authoritatively says “go” at the start of each scene. It is a small but vital part, and in some ways it serves as a representation of Lee. Though the play may be about straight white men, this isn’t just another Shakespeare.