Young Jean Lee writes about things she finds uncomfortable — parsing Asian-American and African-American identity, creating a wordless play performed in the nude. In a Northwest premiere, she turns her gaze to ‘Straight White Men,’ produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre.
Let’s just spoil the end of this play right now and get it over with — because “Straight White Men,” by the marvelously stealthy bomb-thrower Young Jean Lee, is not an Agatha Christie mystery. She left her “whodunit” right in the title.
Straight white men dunit — to you and me and the rest of the world. And to themselves.
Lee doesn’t spare her stealthy bombs for the plot. She’s saving them for you.
‘Straight White Men’
Jan. 12-29 by Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $14-$25 (washingtonensemble.org).
As the lights dim on the final scene of this three-act family Christmas drama, in which little of consequence seems to happen, one of three white brothers (Matt), who’s been the butt of every other character’s anxieties, breaks the fourth wall from his seat on the sofa. According to Lee’s stage directions, he “looks up and out into the audience, looking from person to person.”
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This moment, director Sara Porkalob said, seems small, but it’s the crux of the play — when Lee sets the trap of a lovable white man having a little white-man crisis.
“It’s Young Jean Lee’s way of being like: ‘Ah! Watch yourself!’ ” Porkalob said. “What you’re feeling right now? You feel bad for the sad white dude? Maybe that needs to be analyzed.”
While not much happens during the play (nobody dies, nobody confesses a deep secret), the brothers’ Christmas reunion with their father is fraught with sublimated peril: The surface, bro-ish bonding — butt-slapping, board-game playing and Chinese food-sharing — culminates in an extended, passive-aggressive (and eventually aggressive-aggressive) attack on Matt for not doing more with his life. Matt went to Harvard and Stanford, and to Ghana for do-gooder work. So why is he such a sad-sack who seems oddly content to vacuum his father’s floor while the other boys are out having children and careers?
“I just want to be useful!” Matt protests. “I spent my whole life trying to make things better, and everything I did just made things worse!” Matt’s father shoots back: “Because white guys can’t do anything right?” That is the play’s unanswered question — compounded with the overarching question of whether we should even care.
Matt’s crisis — and his weird eye contact with each audience member at the end of the show — is, Porkalob said, “a trap lined with rose petals.”
Porkalob is a steely performance artist who “grew up poor,” she said, and paid her way through theater training at Cornish College of the Arts by working as a paralegal, pizza-delivery phone operator, phone-sex worker, barista and retail clerk. The idea of a straight, white, privileged character like Matt being accused of not making more of his life was especially intriguing. “In America, being a loser is the worst thing,” she said. “What people of color want from a white guy is [for him] to sit down and shut up.” But when Matt does exactly that — and turns his gaze back on us, Porkalob said, audiences recoil.
“He’s looking at the audience as a form of accountability, or challenge,” Porkalob said. “Young Jean Lee is saying: ‘Don’t fall into this trap — there’s something else happening here than a sad white dude on stage.’ ”
While the play supposedly pivots around Matt’s lack of ambition, Lee, Porkalob said, “has created a young, white, male masculine crisis to point at how insidious male, white crises are in American narratives.” Lee has, in effect, written a three-act, kitchen-sink-realism drama about straight white men to satirize how kitchen-sink-realist dramas about straight white men permeate every corner of U.S. culture.
Writing a play with seemingly inconsequential action, but a culturally tense title might sound contradictory — but Lee is a genius at packing difficult themes into normal-looking boxes with deceptively attractive, easy-to-untie bows. In 2012, she told New Yorker critic Hilton Als: “I’ve found that the only way to make theater that gets the audience thinking is when I feel uncomfortable making it.”
To wit: (1) “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” (2006), in which Lee aggressively deploys stereotypes in order to force audiences to confront their own racism. Almost every character makes the audience wince, including an unnamed Korean-American character who describes Asian Americans as being “slightly brain damaged” because they were raised by parents who are “too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status.” (2) “The Shipment” (2009), about black American identity, which begins as “a minstrel show” (song, dance, stand-up comedy) and segues into a living-room drama. (3) “Untitled Feminist Show” (2013), in which half a dozen naked not-men (women, some transgender persons) perform a comedy without words — or clothes — about gender politics.
Get the idea? Lee makes herself uncomfortable to discomfort her audience.
“Straight White Men” officially ends after Matt’s eye-contact moment, when the “stagehands” (according to the script, “played by gender nonconforming performers, preferably of color”) sweep up the mess (popcorn, pie crumbs, etc.) the white men have left behind.
But, as usual, the end of a Young Jean Lee play isn’t the end of anything — the uncomfortable, post-play silence you share with people afterward is just the beginning.