The Conversation After "Straight White Men"

Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege (pun intended) of attending Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men at the New Rep Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.  

About "Straight White Men"

Playbill of Straight White Men - New Rep Theater September 2018
The play focuses on four men: three brothers and their father.  It's Christmas and two of the brothers have traveled home to spend time with the father and oldest brother  (Matt) who lives in the home they grew up in.  Over the ensuing days, the two visiting brothers determine that their older brother has abandoned his potential and is wasting away his life in menial tasks such as temp jobs and helping their father who is perfectly capable.  One brother reads Matt's actions as indicative of low self-esteem and in need of therapeutic help while the other brother sees it as Matt rejecting his potential as the defying act of someone who recognizes that straight white male privilege is the system and achievement within that system of straight white men is only a perpetuation of that system.  Matt's argument that he is solely finding ways to be useful and failing in finding them goes unheard by everyone.  

That's the gist of the play but, of course, it's much more than that.  What the audience watches is a family steeped in privilege as well as a self-awareness of privilege interact and be "themselves" when no one is looking.  It's a capturing of what happens in exclusive white spaces when guards can be let down and how even the more self-aware socially progressive people perpetuate privilege in many different ways.  

However, there's one more layer to the play.  The play starts even as members enter the theater with loud rap and hip-hop music playing, sufficient enough to make this overly white and older audience (I don't think I spotted more than a handful of folks under 40) uncomfortable.  The music is intentional and no, they won't turn it down.  Throughout this pre-show, an African American person dances on stage and occasionally makes their way up and down the aisles.  They greet people and move about until the show starts and we learn that they are "Person In Charge" (PIC--mayhaps a play on person of color - POC)--a character within the play (fabulously performed by Dev Blair).  They introduce themselves with the pronouns "they, them" and then introduce the play.  They then set to getting the stage ready.  This is something that they do several times throughout the show during scene changes.  They bring out each member in the ensuing scene and position them from their posture to their arm and leg placements to even the looks on their face, regularly checking in with the audience to make sure it looks right.  It's a fascinating thing to watch in the white space of the theater as a (presumably by presentation and pronoun use) queer or trans African American order about straight white male bodies.  

It's a play worth seeing and probably worth seeing twice because there's so much to take in.

The Conversation After the Play

But we lucked out in that there was a post-show conversation with the cast and some and that is where, for me, a whole new layer of the show was added.  As mentioned, the audience was overwhelmingly white and older and largely opposite-sex couples.  

The conversation certainly helped me to sess out a bit of what I had seen and better piece together parts of the performance I had just seen (Note:  The ending is intentionally ambiguous, so have fun with that!).  People brought up questions about the intentions of the playwright, about how things were structured, what was going through the actors' heads, and the like.  It was informative and the cast and crew were comfortable in their discussing of the challenges and ah-ha moments they had in developing the production.  

Then, I noticed a series of comments and comparisons that set off my Spidey-sense.  People remarked about how the character Matt was fulfilling the role of the deceased mother and that women's work isn't valued, thus Matt's choice to do such work sends his siblings and ultimately, father, into crisis.  Others picked up on this strand and thought that much of the issues going on was less to do with white privilege and more gender privilege; it was an idea offered by both (white) men and women in the audience.  In fact, there was little discussion of race beyond the acknowledgment that the Person In Charge was directing them and inquiries as to how that felt.  

Something about this conversation didn't entirely sit right with me and I think I'm in a better place now to talk about it.  Now, regular readers know that I've been thinking a lot about and reading a lot of books on racism, marginalized people, white privilege, and white supremacy.   Of course, that reading is constantly expanding.  That got me thinking about this theater production and the audience afterward.

Now, I'm going to bypass talking about the theatre as a place of whiteness.  There are many articles on that subject matter, but I appreciate the telling chart on this brief piece that says a whole bunch.  I bypass it mostly because that's not entirely new (for me) or what stuck in my head during the discussion.  

What stuck in my head was how so very quickly and effectively, the "white" of "Straight White Men" was tossed out the window or devalued in the context of the conversation.  The audience, male and female alike strived to discuss something else or to connect it to something else.  

Now, there are a few converging reasons why this happened and all of them in varying degrees were likely at play.  And before I go forward, I have to acknowledge that I didn't speak up.  I was making sense of what was going on towards the end of the discussion, but I did not speak up.  So I'm not framing this as in a way to say that I'm better.  I'm framing this as a way to capture how white spaces and white conversations help to silence people of color and their value.  

The Absence of People of Color

This is a generalization but overwhelming the audience for the discussion was white.  Coupled with that, the one person of color, Person In Charge was not part of the discussion for unclear reasons.  So in the absence of a visual reminder, it seemed fairly easy to not have to talk about race.  This in itself has been a hallmark criticism within whiteness studies.  White people don't know how to or feel compelled to talk about race in meaningful ways unless people of color are present or pushing the dialogue.  I do not think someone would have been capable of making the comment that the white privilege wasn't as evident had there been people of color present.

Talking Gender Can Be Easier

Similarly, because no one was overtly non-heterosexual with the possible exception of the Person In Charge (though it's not clarified nor is the clarification needed), the conversation around sexuality--the "straight" part of this was absent in the discussion. 

Yet, gender can in many ways be much easier for white people to talk to because while for many, sexuality and race are things they do not necessarily have to think about, navigate, or confront, gender is something they more often do.  The power of patriarchy is still prevalent in our culture, but men, and I would argue (based upon limited and poor assumptions on my part about the type of men who go to pricey regional theater) particularly men that attend a show on "Straight White Men," tend to be more educated and engaged on some level of dialogue about gender equity--if only because they empathize with their partners or other people in their life that identify as females (which, of course, is in itself a limited view of engaging in gender reflection around patriarchy, but I digress).  

So for many in the audience, especially with their partners present, seemed quick to take up the gender dynamic of this play and speak to that, to which I am glad to see but all concerns me that gender seemed to be the concern and not the intersectionality of sexuality (Straight), race (White), and sex/gender (Men).  (Yes, I grouped sex and gender together on that one, if only because the play seems to do that as well).  

No One Saw The Rampant Racism and Homophobia Throughout

What I have some concern with is that many people missed the rampant racism and homophobia throughout.  Between (and sometimes during) the deeper parts of the play, the children by and large engage in various levels of cultural appropriation and racist mockery, either breaking into raps and hip-hop dances, pretend fighting as if they were karate masters with full on faux-line dubbing as if they were an import kung fu movie of the 1970s.  When they are dancing, they appear to simultaneously invoke what is seen as hypersexualized dancing by people of color by white audiences as well as using their dancing as a means to degrading one another, thus also playing to homophobic fears.  They, unreflectively, recall and laugh at how they played "Gay chicken" and one openly admits he serves as gate-keeper to the advancement of people of color and women in his work.  That is, their means of entertaining one another is by creating laughs over marginalized people, even though they also are so quickly to pay lip service to being concerned about privilege and systematic inequality.  

In the end, I found the discussion in some really profound ways, reproducing some of what was going on in the center of the play.  All the while, the audience appeared somewhat oblivious to it.  As I said, I'm not separate from this audience but am only now able to full articulate what I was experiencing.  I don't know if this willl serve the reader or myself in the future for reading but I hope that it can help us think about how knowingly and unknowingly, we conspire in white spaces to reinforce our whiteness, often through negligence, ignornace, or an unwillingness  to pause and think about those not in the room.

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