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From left, Austin Pendleton, Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson and James Stanley in "Straight White Men" at the Public Theater. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
From left, Austin Pendleton, Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson and James Stanley in "Straight White Men" at the Public Theater. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Young Jean Lee Gets Into the Minds of ‘Straight White Men’

In her new play, Young Jean Lee explores notions of privilege and identity by conducting an anthropological study of a very particular demographic.

The April 2015 print issue of American Theatre contains the complete playscript for Straight White Men by Asian-American playwright/auteur Young Jean Lee. The play is an examination of privilege from the point of view of a father and his three sons, who all gather for the holidays and who all share the titular designation.

This is not the first time AT has printed one of Lee’s plays. Her early work Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a similar character study but from the perspective of Asian-American females, was printed in our September 2007 issue.

As a preface to the published play (available in print and digital edition only), Lee had a conversation with playwright/choreographer/actor/director Larissa FastHorse, who will be collaborating on and performing in Lee’s next project. Straight White Men had its world premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The version of the play printed in AT premiered at the Public Theater in New York City.

Young Jean Lee (Photo by Blaine Davis)
Young Jean Lee (Photo by Blaine Davis)

LARISSA FASTHORSE: Could you break down your collaborative process for this play?
YOUNG JEAN LEE: Before I’ve written anything, I start my shows by casting them. Then I write the script in response to conversations with the performers. I developed the script with my New York actors and with students at Brown, where I did the show’s first workshop. Normally when I have conversations about identity with female, queer, or minority cast members, we end up with an avalanche of intense political material to dig into. But the conversations with straight white male actors didn’t generate the same kind of material, because they had spent so much less time thinking about straight white male identity. So starting very early on, we opened up the conversation to other collaborators of diverse identities and backgrounds. Also, because all the dialogue was supposed to be naturalistic (which was not the case with my past work), I had to have the actors do a lot of improvisation so I could get a sense of their speech patterns and behavior. As always, the cast and I picked over every word of the script along with my dramaturg, Mike Farry, and my associate director, Emilyn Kowaleski. We were constantly asking, “How can we make this line stronger?” and we would all brainstorm.

The group you are dealing with clearly changed your process, but also the idea of doing a straight narrative piece must have changed the process as well. Did you find it harder or easier to work with narrative?
The process was both harder and easier. Normally, the way I build my plays, there’s a lot of flexibility and freedom in deciding what goes where. But with naturalistic playwriting, if one brick isn’t in the exact right place, the whole building falls apart. The structure has to be tight in a very specific way in order to maintain that tension, drive the plot and keep the audience invested in the characters. So the writing process took longer and was in some ways less fun. On the other hand, the scary thing about experimental theatre is that, a lot of the time, you’re not even sure you have a show (as opposed to a hodgepodge of images and ideas) until close to the end. Whereas the nice thing about this process was that starting from very early on, I knew that I had a play—a bad play, but still a play.

Why go through this process?
I love working with performers. That’s what inspires me—watching them, learning about who they are, seeing what they can do. For me, the process has to be three-dimensional in space—that’s why I produce my own work. I know playwrights and screenwriters who write scripts and never even see them performed. I can’t imagine ever working that way, because for me, it’s less about creative expression or my vision as an artist than it is embarking on a group experiment, seeing what happens, and making something for an audience.

What ended up oddly being the most controversial aspect of the production at the Public was the pre-show music. You’re very specific about that in the stage directions—but did you expect that to become such a hugely negative experience for people?
I had never really been at a venue like the Public before, where they have a more traditional theatregoing audience, one that is richer than I’m used to. I didn’t want anyone from my audience to come to the play and feel like they didn’t belong there. I tried to create a pre-show environment with music that would make someone like me feel comfortable and at home. And I think it worked. But the downside was that some audience members—definitely not all, but a lot of them—were very upset, because they didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. They felt that the music was aggressive toward them, and when they tried to make it stop and no one would comply with their requests, they got extremely angry.

Fascinating. And you’re happy about that?
I actually wished the people in the audience who got angry at the music were more adventurous about it. They felt that we were purposely making the environment horrible for them, but that wasn’t the case. Many of my friends didn’t even notice the pre-show music until afterward. They said, “What? It wasn’t loud at all. I didn’t even notice it.”

From top, James Stanley, Gary Wilmes and Pete Simpson in the Public Theater production of "Straight White Men." (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
From top, James Stanley, Gary Wilmes and Pete Simpson in the Public Theater production of “Straight White Men.” (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

It’s a very sad piece. Do you want us to feel bad for white men?
I wanted the audience to feel all kinds of emotions—I definitely wasn’t trying to send a message that straight white men are victims. For me, it was more like, “If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight white man, what would I do?” That’s where the existential crisis came up for me, because it would be one thing if I woke up as a straight white man who never thought about his identity and enjoyed his privilege unthinkingly—that might feel kind of good. But if I were to wake up with my own brain in a straight white male body, it would be completely problematic—it would just be, you know, what would I do? And that was the starting point. So it was less that I was trying to create sympathy for straight white male identity, than I was trying to inhabit that identity as a woman of color.

Yeah, totally! One of my plays features a Klan member, and I had to find someone in the Klan who would talk to me and spend time with me.
Oh my God.

I know! People were very surprised I spent so much time on a Klan member, but if you want to make a real character, you have to get their point of view across with sincerity. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and in my case I ended up finding all these disturbing similarities. One of the discoveries I made working on the show was just how much privilege I have that is comparable to the privilege of a straight white male. To what extent am I able to enjoy and exploit my privilege in a way that I can get away with because I am an Asian female? There are a few lines in the play where the characters say, “Unlike women, queer people, and people of color, we can’t pretend we’re doing enough just by pursuing our own ambition,” which I think is a problem for me personally. It’s just taken for granted that my success is good for the world, and that that’s somehow enough, which I don’t think it is. I’ve had people of color come to the show expecting to be totally alienated by all the characters, and then being freaked out by how much they identified.

What do you love most about this play?
I remember we did the premiere at the Wexner Center in Ohio, and the audience was howling with laughter all the way through, and they didn’t hear anything that was being said (people actually told me, “I was having such a good time that I was able to tune out all that political stuff”), and I felt so horrible after that. Then we took it to Europe, and I was like, there’s no way we’re doing this feel-good show in Europe. So we went too far in the opposite direction and people were tuning out everything. It was only by the time we got it to New York that we managed to strike the right balance. So what I love most about the play is that the audience now laughs through most of it, and when it’s over they tell me they were left with a horrible feeling that irked them because they couldn’t precisely define what made them feel that way. I think the play ends up being a fundamentally unsatisfying experience, which is great, since the last thing I wanted to do was make a show about these issues that left both the audience and me feeling satisfied.

Larissa FastHorse will have three play commissions produced in 2015 with Cornerstone Theater Company, Alter Theater and Eagle Project. Other productions include Cherokee Family Reunion (Mountainside Theatre), Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders: A Class Presentation (Native Voices at the Autry), Average Family (Children’s Theatre Company) and a new play by Vera Bedard at Perseverance Theatre, which she will direct.

  • Roger Kuhlman

    I am a White Male who is mostly straight, so I must be an awful person, Right?

    • Jonathan Yukich

      This is addressed, with great compassion and nuance, if you would bother to actually read the play.

  • Mateusz82

    Something to consider is why she refers to herself as “Asian” or “Asian-American”, rather than yellow, and her cast as white, rather than “European-American”. The language used is almost never examined.

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