Young Jean Lee dives into white identity politics in her play, Straight White Men.
Young Jean Lee dives into white identity politics in her play, Straight White Men. Blaine Davis

Matt is a straight white guy with a handsome face, degrees from ivy league universities, and significant work experience abroad. And yet, in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, which has its Northwest premiere at Washington Ensemble Theatre this Friday before making its Broadway debut in June, Matt has decided to spend his adult life caring for his widower father and making copies at a temp job.

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Unable to believe that anyone with a PhD from Stanford would happily devote himself to a life of domestic servitude and simple employment, Matt’s father and his two financially successful brothers grill him during a Christmas vacation. He has so much "potential" he could "leverage." So much time, money, and love has been "invested" in him. What the fuck is he doing making copies for a living?

What ends up happening to Matt in this family drama is thought provoking, heartbreaking, and kind of shocking considering the heaps of fratty humor that precede the final moment. Some of the dozen questions raised when the curtain falls: What do people really think about a white guy who sits down, shuts up, and stops taking up too much "space?" Is he a good role model? Noble? Confused? Is he being ridiculously self-flagellating, or respectably righteous? Is he kind of a loser, but in a good way? Kinda dumb? None of the above? All of the above? What does he think?

These weren’t questions celebrated avant-garde playwright Lee had any interest in investigating through drama—especially linear, narrative drama—at all. “What person of color would want to devote years of their life to exploring straight white male identity?” she told me over the phone last week. But, because her whole thing is investigating thorny questions she wouldn’t imagine herself investigating, she dove right in and improvised a first draft with her students at Brown University.

In the years that followed she wrote and rewrote Straight White Men, working closely with the original cast members who brought the play to the stage for the first time at Public Theatre in 2014. Now the show’s stopping by Seattle en route to Broadway, a stage that has yet to host a play written by an Asian American woman.

In anticipation of the show, I had all kinds of questions about Broadway politics, identity politics, and politics-politics, so I called her up for a chat.

Straight White Men is going to Broadway! How did that happen?

It happened in a very weird way. Second Stage invited me in for a meeting. I thought it was a general get-to-know-you meeting. But then I walked in and they said they wanted to commission a play from me to put on Broadway, and that they also might want to do Straight White Men on Broadway. They confirmed pretty quickly that they wanted to produce Straight White Men. It was just very sudden.

That’s exciting, right? Why does that feel weird to you?

It was weird because Broadway was never really an aspiration of mine. I was not ever really aiming for that. It wasn’t a dream come true because it wasn’t a dream. What’s exciting for me is less that I’ll be on Broadway, and more that Second Stage is changing what they want Broadway to be, and I’m excited to be part of that change.

Though, with Straight White Men, I did think that if any show had the potential to go to Broadway it would be that one.

Why?

Because it’s the only one I’d ever written that had a traditionally linear narrative.

Do you wish it were another show?

Definitely not! No way. It wouldn’t have made any sense. If one of my other shows had gone on the old Broadway—or the new Broadway—it would have closed immediately. I probably would have said no if it would have been offered.

Hm. Why?

Because I don’t think it would work!

You’re on record saying you begin projects by asking yourself: “What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?” Did Straight White Men begin that way?

Definitely, yeah. What person of color would want to devote years of their life to exploring straight white male identity? I mean—no. The reason I do things I don’t want to do is because it takes me out of some comfortable way I’m thinking and forces me to expand my view of the world. This play was the perfect example of that. I didn’t want to spend time thinking about straight white male identity, but in doing so I learned a lot about my own identity.

Like what?

In a lot of ways, my privilege overlaps with straight white men. I was using my marginalized status as a way of avoiding political responsibility. A lot of women and people of color do that.

Are you thinking of a specific example?

I’m the first Asian American female playwright on Broadway, and people say that’s great. But if I were a white guy, there would be no virtue in that. As a human being, I’m not doing anything beyond what I feel like doing. Just the mere fact of my contributing to diversity on Broadway—I don’t think that’s enough.

It’s not enough just to be successful. It’s such a cop out to be like, “Well it’s not good enough for a straight white man to just be successful, but, for me, I’m a woman of color and if I’m successful then I’m making the world a better place.”

What sorts of political activities have you taken up?

I’ve been donating money more. I’ve been calling my Senators. I’ve been much more politically active and engaged in terms of spreading info about where people can give money and who they can call. I’m just more active and aware in that way than I used to be. I’m going to be much more involved with the next election, and I definitely feel more of a sense of responsibility now.

In an interview you mentioned that several long conversations about whiteness, maleness, and straightness came up in rehearsals for this play. Could you outline one of the contours of those conversations?

There was a moment when I was talking to a diverse group of people. They were complaining about straight white men, and I asked what they wanted straight white men to do. They gave me a list of things, and so I went home and wrote that character. When I brought him in everyone hated him because he was a loser.

Hm.

For a lot of people such as myself, who are parts of marginalized groups, we, at our core, are much more engrained with a drive toward the capitalistic model of success. Our commitment to that is in some cases stronger than our commitment to our political beliefs. The fact that this guy was doing all the things they said they wanted but not winning in a capitalist model and so coming off as a loser—that was interesting.

That IS interesting.

It’s a topic that is a little bit—it has to be handled carefully. It’s so easy once you start going down that road to say, “Identity politics is bullshit, the real problem is class.” That’s a real dismissal of racism in our culture, and so I was approaching it very carefully.

What are you working on now?
My play about class. I’m developing that right now. No title yet.