“What would you be willing to give up to make a difference in the world?”
Young Jean Lee wrote Straight White Men because a three-act naturalistic play about straight white men was the last thing the Korean-American, New York–based, avant-garde playwright and theatre maker wanted to write.
The result is an extraordinary exploration of privilege that starts with four men who are so self aware of their privilege that they question their own self awareness of their privilege.
The “last show” motivation has been a relative constant in Lee’s work. In 2012, the Melbourne Festival brought us her We’re All Going to Die, in which the non-singer, inexperienced performer fronted a band in a cabaret show about personal loss and death. She had the audience clapping along in a crying and smiling mess as we sang “We’re all gonna die”. Last year’s festival screened a filmed performance of her work The Shipment about being black in the USA, in which some audience members huffed out of the cinema without trying to understand why some of us were laughing so much that it hurt.
In Straight White Men, brothers Jake (Luke Ryan) and Drew (Hamish Michael) are back home for Christmas with their older brother Matt (Gareth Reeves) and dad, Ed, (John Gaden). Their mum is dead, but her presence remains in the likes of Monopoly game re-made as Privilege – donate $50 to the local gay and lesbian support group.
Jake knows that his success at work is because he’s a SWM, Matt insists he’s happy being a temp at community centre because he’s useful, and Drew knows how much therapy and talking have helped him. They sing satirical racist show tunes, want to wear Christmas eve pjs, and stop to ask the brother who’s crying if he’s sick, hurt or wants to talk.
What lovely men.
So why is their behaviour so funny?
They are what so many people say they/we want our straight white men to be. Yet when we’re given men like that, we laugh at them.
Director Sarah Giles, designer Eugyeene Teh – who includes touches like the home-made clay phallic sculpture and Jake’s full-compression running clothes coordinated with multi-pocketted running shorts – and the cast nail Lee’s tone. The best satire is played as straight as it can be, without any self-aware winks to the audience.
Those winks are left to the glorious Candy Bowers, who welcomes the audience as a DJ – listen to what she plays – and is the woman of colour who watches and tweaks the men’s world. Her constant presence reminds us that it’s not about the men on stage; it’s about everything that they are expected to be and about every one who laughs when they are not what we expect.
Like the playwright, she reminds us that we should be laughing at this world because we’re part of it. We laugh because maybe we should feel as conflicted as they do when they’re faced with giving up anything to help smash the system that has given them so much.