Young Jean Lee: Inviting Everyone into the Room, Straight White Men, Too
I met one of my closest friends in graduate school. We were both aspiring playwrights; I, however had the strangely distinct luck to be from a poor background and of minority descent, while he was from plentiful means and Caucasian. He was and remains a wonderful writer full of intellect, strong craft, and true empathy. But a couple years after we graduated, he threw in the towel on playwriting; he now writes code for websites and has a very fulfilling life and family. I remember asking if he ever writes anymore, and why he gave it up. His response, after years of perspective? “I had nothing to say.”
What has always turned me on about the work of Young Jean Lee is how she consistently pushes down the boundaries of who has the right to say things and how ridiculous that concept is to begin with.
My first introduction to Lee was through her production of The Shipment, in which she put together a collaborative team to explore black identity. What resulted was one of the most intriguing, challenging, non-agenda pursuing pieces of theater that I had seen. And I remember thinking how this rehearsal room which Lee creates is in itself what good theater or art should be, the sort that takes in perspectives from all sides and doesn’t alienate or give favor to certain audiences.
Next, I saw her production of Lear, where I wound up sitting next to Lee while she took notes. I was too shy to say anything, but what impressed me was how, while she took us through a slight riff on King Lear, what she had really created seemed to be a piece about our lost connection to our parents either through death, illness, or just neglect. The play began with Shakespearean characters, but what really managed to punch me in the gut came well into the play when suddenly the actors began to address the audience and each other from a completely different world. As the stage directions from Lear prescribe: “From this point forward, until they turn into characters from Sesame Street, the actors “play themselves” and are referred to in the script by the names of the actors in the show’s original cast.”
From this moment on, the play began to speak to us directly about time and how we are using it and how little of it we have left. There is something in Lee’s impulse to come at us from an unexpected direction that unsettles an audience and causes us to listen more closely, with more openness.
This impulse is something she seemed to explore more directly in We’re Gonna Die, her one-woman show where she is backed by a rock band. While a venture like that might cause eyes to want to roll, this piece is surprisingly Lee’s most touching, seemingly personal project to date. However, her author’s note in the script, Lee writes:
All of the stories in this show are true, but not all of them happened to me, so although I originally performed the piece, it isn’t necessary to attempt to recreate my “character” or “voice.” Instead, the show is designed for anyone to be able to perform as themselves without adopting a theatrical persona. For that reason, performers should feel free to make whatever small changes are necessary in order to make the text feel natural for them to perform.
And through the performance, we hear first-person stories and songs about family and close friends in their different variations of how they suffer and how dark it might seem sometimes. A true intimate connection is made, despite the more cabaret structure of the show.
A song from We’re Gonna Die:
The only words of comfort for the lonely
The very words that they will never hear
The only words of comfort for the lonely
The very words that they will never hear
I’m coming over now
I’ll be right there
And though the show is filled with stories of hopeless human beings, and fractured relationships, it manages to find hope without sentimentality.
From We’re Gonna Die:
But I’m not special. I’m a person. And when you’re a person, all kinds of really terrible things can happen to you. That’s why my father died the way that he did, and if I die the same way, it’ll be for the same reason: because I’m a person. Just like my father, just like my Uncle John, just like everyone. And again, it wasn’t some big, profound revelation. But for the first time in a long time, I felt a very little bit of comfort.
I was also able to catch several incarnations of Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, which presents an audience with several performers with female coded bodies completely nude as they move through the complexities of how they are otherwise seen out in the world. What fascinated me about this work was watching how it evolved not only from the work of the artists involved, but also in the post-show discussions where Lee and her collaborators would take notes and ask for written feedback, too—their exploration truly felt inclusive of everyone in the room.
Which brings us to Straight White Men. I first knew this play was in the works because Lee herself would often post questions about this topic on social media where we could all watch as the comments flooded in. This is the sort of audience engagement most theaters would pay money for. But again, Lee seems to be approaching her subject not from an author’s singular perspective, but rather dipping herself into the actual world we live in and seeing all the muck and beauty that sticks.
The result is her most structured storytelling venture to date: an almost simple story of a father, Ed, and his sons Drew, Jake, and Matt over a particular Christmas. The simplicity of it reminds me of the final scene from The Shipment, where we are watching a seemingly normal social situation that we all recognize, but there is something underneath it that unhinges it. While in The Shipment those who we assume are African-American characters are actually Caucasian, in Straight White Men, these characters are exactly who they say they are, exactly who the title of the play suggests names them to be.
But there is something off. Their lives are not as one might assume. They are not laughing, or riding the coattails of their position in life; rather they are struggling to find happiness and yet turning up at a loss as to how they, of all people, can’t seem to find it.
From Straight White Men (note: excerpts subject to change as the script is still in development):
What’s more important than being happy?
Doing what’s right?
Sacrificing for a greater good. People like us should be doing more than self-actualizing.
“People like us”? What’s that supposed to mean?
You know, privileged dickheads.
Privilege is about getting a free ride. We’ve worked hard for everything we have.
No Dad, privilege is about getting rewarded for working hard. How many people get that?
And while the play moves smartly around this topic of privilege, what we are actually watching are men who are downright confused as to what privilege means to them and what they were ever supposed to do with it. We always assume that having something over somebody else automatically sets you into forward motion; but what if the world is changing, and there is no straight path?
From Straight White Men:
That there’s nothing people like us can do in the world that isn’t problematic or evil, so we have to make ourselves invisible.
Lee continually bobs and weaves from the individuals’ storylines to seeing these characters onstage as the subjects of a discussion on privilege; and often we feel the macro-conversation between those that have and those that do not on a much larger level:
You can’t just be a regular person and live a normal life. You have to come up with some grandiosely negative view of the world that lets you feel like a martyr who’s better than everyone else.
It’s all about ego, Matt! Have some fucking humility! It’s hateful to be so rejecting of everything, I can’t be around it.
We can talk when you’re capable of thinking of someone besides yourself.
What makes this play so provoking of thought is that while an audience might settle in for an evening of ridiculing how easy straight white men have it in this world, Lee digs far deeper. She looks out from within these men; her play acts as a lens that examines the under-privileged and privileged. And I find myself thinking how the world’s struggle comes from both sides of the seeming privilege divide, each person just as lonely as the other, missing some crucial other half that perhaps is what we need to find a home in this world.
Straight White Men written and directed by Young Jean Lee; in a production by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company and commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, Center Theater Group, Steirischer Herbst Festival, Les Spectacles Vivants du Centre Pompidou, Festival d’Automne à Paris, and The Public Theater. Plays November 7 – December 7 at The Public Theater. For tickets and more information: www.publictheater.org
ContributorMatthew Paul Olmos
MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is a three-time Sundance Institute Fellowship/Residency recipient, New Dramatists Resident Playwright, Center Theatre Group LA Writers Workshop Playwright, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Black Swan Playwright, Princess Grace Awardee in Playwriting, and the inaugural La MaMa e.t.c.'s Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Awardee as selected by Sam Shepard. Also an Ensemble Studio Theater lifetime member and two-time Resident Artist at Mabou Mines/Suite as mentored by Ruth Maleczech. His work has been seen both nationally and internationally and is published by NoPassport Press and Samuel French. For more information, visit matthewpaulolmos.com.