Straight White Men
La Boite & State Theatre Company
July 27 – August 13 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Because to acknowledge that privilege exists is to acknowledge that we live in an unkind, unfair and oppressive world.
Director, Nescha Jelk
Straight White Men is a powerfully political play without being overtly so. But only if we want it to be. We can walk away considering its content or simply be amused by its characters. The arguments that come towards the end of it are the result of the characters’ musings throughout, not as an attempt by the playwright to punch us in the gut but as a slow burn to destroy us through self-doubt; Young Jean Lee is all about “destroying” her audience. After laughing at the comments and silly antics of three young men who return to their widowed father’s home for Christmas, we’re eventually left to squirm in our own discomfort. The feeling at the end of this piece is the feeling of having said something appalling rather than having stayed within the bounds of polite, politically correct conversation, followed by awkward silence and blank stares. Having uttered aloud many appalling things in my life I recognise the feeling immediately. It’s a guerrilla tactic, gently, subversively forcing the issues in our faces. Which is where they’ve always been, only we’ve turned a blind eye, haven’t we?
The boys behave badly, but not really. Their preconceptions are our preconceptions. Their notions about privilege are our notions about privilege. Their behaviour is so typical, so ordinary; they’re so well read and worldly and witty and they’re just joking – we totally get it – they’re products of their environment and perhaps that’s the problem we too continue to perpetuate. We recognise them (too) easily. We know them. We are them. Everything is assumed, and reinforced by the previous generation, reminding us endlessly, we don’t know how lucky we are. After growing up with far more than they need, graduating from college and navigating relationships and careers of varying degrees of success, Jake (a strong, insightful performance from Chris Pitman), Drew (Lucas Stibbard) and Matt (Hugh Parker) don’t know what it is to do without. And one of them feels bad about that. After years of simply trying to be “useful” Matt suddenly cracks up and breaks down over a Chinese takeout Christmas Dinner around the coffee table, and his family doesn’t understand why. His father, Ed (Roger Newcombe), has long wondered why his eldest child hasn’t put his gifts to good use as his brothers have done. The premise is fine and the context is perfectly acceptable, but has this production missed the mark? Has the playwright written something so blandly American we’re able to walk away from it unaffected? I don’t think so. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s presented nicely, wickedly glaring us in the face and daring us to consider our own cultural privilege.
I love the way, once the actors have stopped being so earnest and simply settle into the story (typical opening night pitched performances – everybody, chill! We like you, you know), these characters communicate naturalistically, from a place of innocence and genuine antagonism, which we realise comes from the deeply ingrained habits we learn in close living quarters, not to mention the level of intimacy/apathy we invariably develop after years spent dancing together in front of the fireplace in daggy pyjamas. The big questions are asked and no answers are provided here unless we choose to see them for ourselves, veiled as they are behind the boys’ attitudes and behaviour, which becomes progressively childish; unsurprisingly, the brothers quickly revert to their childhood roles. This leads to some interesting oneupmanship and great physical comedy, nicely managed by Director Nescha Jelk, each time somebody presses somebody for answers, or somebody wants to sit in somebody’s chair. We can relate because we’ve all suffered from – or manipulated – the cruel games and power play at alcohol fuelled family reunions. And we all have our favourite chair. The pent up emotions stemming from dissatisfaction with the culture of privilege begin to surface. Designer, Victoria Lamb, invites us into a comfortable middle class home, with an interior of middle class (ie neutral) colours, soft furnishings (ie effortlessly coordinated), and plush carpet. Ben Hughes’ lighting is white with a neat golden glow and it stays politely understated. Privileged. Perfect.
Young Jean Lee says this work is designed to make us notice our own responses and think about our relationships to our own privilege. Jelk echoes the sentiments of the text. She says feeling guilty about her privilege “isn’t useful – it doesn’t help anyone or do anything.”
Straight White Men has people talking, and appropriately, for the privileged opening night crowd, conversations buzzed over free drinks after the show. In between high praise for the playwright, the performances, the design elements, etc. I heard it’s not clever enough, not subversive enough, not specific enough… Um. Were you not listening closely enough? It’s not my favourite either, but maybe I’ve missed what it is that’s been perceived by some as being so unsuccessful about this show. I love the way we have a heap of stuff we so often avoid discussing thrown in our face without it being discussed. Are we so privileged, having seen so much, that now nothing is good enough?!
If we’re white and privileged, we don’t need to think about being white and privileged, right?
The beauty – and challenge – of this text is that it speaks to the themes of privilege, desire, identity, equality and empathy largely without actually speaking about them.
What we really care about, what we really value, is not being a loser.
Young Jean Lee
The text includes an interesting introduction and subsequent interludes during the scene changes. The device falls flat here, although there is general laughter and congenial nodding of heads in acknowledgment of the dead white male three-act structure being manipulated by a non-white woman, presumably “provocatively” dressed, the stagehand-in-charge, who addresses the audience in her own “voice”. In this case, it’s Merlynn Tong who gives us a beautiful Welcome to Country when the noise of the deliberately offensive pre-show hip hop stops (MD, composer and sound designer Busty Beatz). I think, wonderful; someone has contextualised this American play for Australian audiences. But then the male performers appear, speak in their American accents (Accent Coach Simon Stollery) and it feels like the opening is a token gesture. Why doesn’t that work?
I can’t help wondering how previous stagehands-in-charge have been received. I don’t find anything particularly provocative about the way Tong is dressed, or the way she speaks to us, or the way she unpacks the meta theatrical before the story begins. No doubt there are others who better appreciate her part in the play. I’d like to see it again without her handing us the context on a silver privileged platter…but perhaps that’s the point. Or perhaps La Boite’s trailer does a more sophisticated job of framing the show than the show does… This is not to say that Tong doesn’t put in a fine performance, more that the writing can do without her introduction or subsequent interruptions. Sometimes it’s more effective to simply tell the story without attempting to break it down or make it…cute.
It’s true. Straight White Men might almost be a really bland American piece, from which this Australian cast gets – almost – as much as they can. There’s something lacking within the final moments but again, is it the writing? (Jean Young Lee is a new favourite the world over, and an award winner so, you know…). The text redeems itself somewhat with its persistent, unapologetic approach to its social political themes, showing us throughout what a white man thinks makes a white man successful (or what an American-Korean woman thinks a white man thinks makes a white man successful!), and at the very least, this production succeeds in holding up a mirror. Whether or not we like what we see (or even bother to take a second look) is the most interesting result of this work. It’s entertaining and confronting and challenging in a way most live theatre doesn’t try to be (or isn’t quite bold enough to be). With its undercurrent of polite, privileged restraint, Straight White Men challenges us to think again about the invisible influences: what is it that amuses, inspires and endures? And why?
P.S. And just what do non-white, unprivileged people think about this play and their response to it? Will they ever even see it?