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Young Jean Lee's play 'Straight White Men' examines the ethics of privilege

L-R: Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd, Richard Riehle and Brian Slaten in “Straight White Men,” written and directed by Young Jean Lee.
L-R: Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd, Richard Riehle and Brian Slaten in “Straight White Men,” written and directed by Young Jean Lee.
Craig Schwartz
L-R: Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd, Richard Riehle and Brian Slaten in “Straight White Men,” written and directed by Young Jean Lee.
Clockwise from top left: Cast members Frank Boyd, Gary Wilmes, Brian Slaten, Richard Riehle with playwright/director Young Jean Lee in rehearsal for “Straight White Men.”
Craig Schwartz

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The playwright Young Jean Lee was born in South Korea and came to the U.S. as a toddler with her immigrant parents. So, of course she would write a play called “Straight White Men.”

Actually, it’s in keeping with the New York Times’ description of her as "the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation" — “downtown” meaning New York’s off-Broadway experimental theater scene.

But “Straight White Men” is Lee’s most straightforward play. It’s focused on a single father and his three adult sons who are home for Christmas. One of the sons is a middle-age underachiever who’s still living at home, which confounds his family. By examining his situation, the play challenges audiences to think about the privilege of being someone who matches the show's title.

Young Jean Lee visited The Frame to talk about the genesis of “Straight White Men,” growing up in a small Northwestern town, and how she views her own privilege.

Interview Highlights:      

What sparked the initial idea for this play?

There was this shift that was happening where, for so many years, straight white men didn’t really have to contend with that label in the way that they have to today. For a long time, straight white men got to be the default human, and then everybody else had [labels]. And now straight white men are getting slapped with the label, which is why the title is what it is. It’s sort of about this moment where straight white men are experiencing what everybody else has experienced forever. And they really, of course, hate the experience, because nobody likes having a label slapped on them and told who they are.

The play is about straight white men, but it’s also about a family. You have three siblings and a single parent. Do the relationships between the siblings, and the siblings and the parent, lay bare some of the ideas that you’re trying to expose?

Dramatically, it was necessary to be a family because in the world of straight white men that I discovered in my research, only in that context would men be likely to get in each other’s business the way these men do. And even though they’re such a close family, it takes so long in the play for them actually to get to the point where they’re confronting things. So for me, that family aspect was necessary just in order to get the men to start interfering in each other’s lives.

And judging...I think that’s part of the whole story — that the two younger siblings feel that the oldest brother is not taking advantage of the opportunities he has in front of him. I guess that’s the bigger question in terms of the opportunities that straight white men have, and whether or not that’s an opportunity or a burden, as the play is trying to explore.

Yes, it’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege. But things are changing. There’s a lot of straight white male paranoia that I’ve been researching as well, where they’re [saying], Oh my gosh. All of our power is eroded and now we’re in the weaker position. And I don’t buy that at all. But I do buy that the first rumblings of that are about to happen, and I do see a panic starting to unfold. Not in a widespread way, but there are men out there — straight white men — who are very self-abnegating as a response to their own privilege. And I feel like that’s a very interesting and current thing.

There was a profile about you written in The New Yorker in which Hilton Als said you “wanted to create art about something she did not entirely understand in a genre that she had not fully explored.” The genre would be something that’s not experimental, something that’s straightforward narrative, traditional playwriting. So why was the genre itself important to you?

I always like for the genre to be interacting with the subject matter. I change genres a lot. I always like it to be able to play with the form and the content in relation to each other. And I thought that if I’m going to write a play about straight white male identity, then it would be interesting to use the “straight white male” of theatrical genres, which is the naturalistic three-act play.

I sort of secretly sat in on an audience discussion after [a] performance. And they were so distressed. It was as if they had just seen "Eraserhead" or something. They were just completely upset by the fact that there was no big revelation at the end — nobody gets shot, nobody kills themselves. Because if somebody gets shot or kills themselves, you know what happened to that person. And so the fact that it ends without an answer, or a resolution...They were like, The playwright must be sadistic.

That’s what they said in your presence?

Yeah! But I didn’t withhold a resolution that I had just to make people unhappy. I really just couldn’t find a resolution.

Does that come back to this idea that you wanted to explore something that you didn’t entirely understand? And did you end up not understanding it at the end, or did you not want it to be understandable?

It wasn't about understanding or not understanding. I felt like I understood the problem, I just didn’t understand the answer. You know? And I really tried hard to come up with something. But the answer to the question — How do you live an ethical life when you’re somebody who has privilege? — is very complicated. I couldn’t figure it out.

Your parents came to the United States from Korea when you were two years old. You lived in predominantly white Pullman, Washington. How did that affect your work as an artist and how you saw things evolve?

It had a huge impact because I was so isolated. It was a very white town. It was pretty racist. I was something of a social outcast just by virtue of my race. It sort of doesn’t go away, that feeling of being an outsider. Even though that stopped as soon as I went to college, in all of my work, there’s a real concern about people who are on the outside, about people who don’t belong in society. The example I always use is like the weird uncle. Almost every family has “the weird uncle” who’s sort of not doing the things that everyone else is doing. He shows up at holidays and it’s a little bit awkward.

So in “Straight White Men,” are you trying to force people — like myself, a straight white man — to think about identity in the way that non-white people are constantly having to?

You know, I wouldn’t say that that’s the intent of the play. I feel like that’s the impetus for the action of the characters, which is the fact that they are in a situation where they are confronting that. But the problem for me is really, what are they supposed to do once they do that? To make things more concrete, the origin for the story was that I was in a room full of women and queer people and minorities. And I asked them, “What do you think of straight white men?” And it was so negative, what they were saying.

What were they saying?

Oh, just that they’re arrogant and stupid and just — so negative. Like, racist, sexist — so much vitriol. And I said, “What could they do to make you less angry at them?” And so they gave me this list of things that they wanted straight white men to do, in terms of behavior. Like, we want them to sit down, shut up, stay out of the room, stay out of the way, don’t think they know anything. That was the list.

Do you feel, at this point, that you have a little bit of privilege as a playwright, and can you use that privilege to your advantage?

Oh my god, I feel like, not even as a playwright. I feel like as an Asian female. One of the things I realize working on this play was that as a straight Asian female, how many privileges I share with straight white men. Just by doing whatever I want and pursuing my ambition and getting ahead, I can say, Oh I’m increasing diversity in the world. I’m doing something great and heroic. But a straight white male wouldn’t be able to say, Oh, I’m making the world a better place, just by virtue of my own success.

"Straight White Men" is at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through Dec. 20.

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