Usually when I think about the core of straight white masculinity in the US my mind comes up with things close to football bros and violent pumpkin riots. As someone who identifies as queer and actively seeks queer communities, I seldom come in contact with straight white men, apart from my one token SWM (single white male) friend (shout out to Carlo!). This meant that when I went to see Young Jean Lee’s play, Straight White Men at Hebbel Am Ufer this weekend in Berlin, I felt like I had traveled to an alternative universe.
The play is set in the family room of a house in a generic college town in the United States. It focuses on the inner-workings of a Christmas holiday with a father and his three sons. It has been touring around the USA and Europe for a few years now. It is currently on at the HAU in Berlin for HAU’s festival, Männlich Weiß Hetero: eine Festival über Privliegen (Straight White Men: a Festival about the Privileged).
This is the first narrative play Young Jean Lee has written. She is known for her experimental and critical theater productions centering on identity politics. When starting a project, she usually identifies a question to explore and organically writes the script in collaboration with cast members through a series of workshops, as opposed to writing a script and casting members who fit characters she has created by herself.
Straight White Men is actually a very depressing and dry play. The men discuss their position in the world and how they (kind of) wish to change structures of power which benefit them (mostly just so they wouldn’t have to feel guilty). The not-so-typical narrative arc of the play focuses on the eldest brother, Matt. He has a temporary job at a social justice organization and has run himself into a depression trying to be the “nice white savior guy”. To me, the ending message of the play seemed to be a sad dead end — basically saying that anything straight white men do is problematic and coming from a place of guilt or greed.
The context of the piece being presented as a work of theater and art allowed more space to be given to deconstructing this typically unquestionable identity. Watching the play felt very similar to watching any other TV show/life experience where straight white men are taking up a lot of space. However, because it was a work of art I felt I was able to step back and have space to understand the characters with more complexity than in other situations. This lead to lots of interesting discussions with friends, especially my token SWM friend, Carlo! I appreciated the critical space and platform the play presented for personal conversations.
Ultimately, the part of the show which was most interesting and informative for me was the talk back with the four actors and Lee after the show. An audience member asked the actors, after their three years of developing and performing the play, how their understandings of their own identities as straight white men had changed and what they planned to do with this self-reflection.
………….. crickets …………..
Insecurity, silence, and uncomfortable laughter filled the stage as the men halfheartedly attempted to say something (anything!) about what it felt like to be a straight white male. Each ultimately gave up, saying they’d rather not speak at all for fear that they’d say the wrong thing. One actor, Gary Wilmes, who played a banker, the most “macho” of all the brothers, informed the audience that he was now more aware of the world outside of his own experience. As an example, he told us that he now understands why, when ordering a coffee from a Person of Color, they aren’t always happy to serve him. “But I’m not racist!” he quickly clarified after sharing this example….
As a white person I understand this difficulty in critical self-reflection and taking responsibility for your positionality in the world. But it is so essential and something which needs to be a constant process, especially if you’re working to break down historical power structures.
These actors inability to speak about their own identities spoke much more to me than the play itself. After working for three years on helping Lee create this production you’d think they would have at least a staple response to such a question.
I really value Lee’s attempt at tackling a subject which is usually met with silence. Most reviews have just commented on how the play creates sympathy for the protagonists or swayed away at any comment at all and just recounted what happened. However, I wish there had been some injection of the outside world during the play. It felt like it stayed very contained and once it was over and we tried to talk about what next (?!) is possible in the world outside of the theater, there was nothing.