Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee
La Boite at the Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane
Straight white men, especially the middle to upper class variety, are regularly told they hold a privileged position in society. Historically, this has been true in both the literal sense (earning more money, having a higher living standard and more opportunities for advancement, etc) and the more general unconscious bias that exists in all manner of our social and economic power structures.
On an individual level, of course, things are more complicated. Not every straight white man sees himself as a ‘success’ personally or financially. Shit happens – even to straight white men. The very definition of success is a hot mess for men (and women) in a society that’s simultaneously burdened with guilt from the past and fear of the future.
This sense of bewildered existential angst is tackled in Straight White Men – a new production for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre Company with the South Australian State Theatre Company, written by US playwright Young Jean Lee. Lee is known for challenging, experimental productions and yet this is presented as a ‘straight’ 3 act play, the gold standard for the narratives of straight white male writers in days gone by. We’re so blasé about audio-visual thrill-seeking on stage nowadays that it’s quite refreshing to see a story unfold in this pared back format. Having said that, this is far from a ‘quiet’ production.
Jarring hip hop assaults the senses as you wait for the show to commence. It’s a genre of music well known for aggressive masculinity, although it’s Nicky Minaj et al used here (I see what you did there!). Tension levels rise quickly – and keep rising – from the moment the cast hits the stage. The performers swing between slapstick physical comedy and vein-popping torment as they deliver lines at a consistent fever pitch. It’s a little exhausting for the audience, to be honest, but must be verging on medically risky for the cast!
To the story. Three middle aged brothers gather at their father’s home for Christmas. There, they ponder the year’s wins and losses: relationships, work goals, fading fitness regimes. In the security of the family home, they quickly revert to roles we imagine they’ve held since boyhood: the trouble maker, the smart one, the rebel – wrestling, teasing and targeting each other’s Achilles’ heels as only siblings can.
As Christmas Eve rolls on, it becomes clear that one of the brothers, Matt, is troubled. He bursts into tears over the eggnog and no one knows exactly what to do or say. This deceptively simple plot twist opens all the wounds in contemporary male identity. What is a ‘real’ man? What does it mean to be strong? What does it mean to be happy? Do the privileged have any right to be depressed?
I particularly enjoyed Hugh Parker as Matt in this production. His brow was rarely unfurrowed and his posture indicated the weight of the world on his shoulders, even during an outburst of drunken break-dancing.
The characters articulate the tension between trying to ‘lean out’ and ‘man up’ at the same time. They are all for equality, they’ve got the message about diversity, but they worry that stepping too far from masculine norms will leave them labelled as losers. This is especially true of brother Jake – a successful banker – who believes that presenting yourself as an ‘arsehole’ is the only way to get respect.
Matt, on the other hand, lives with his father, has never met Miss Right and is content in a low key job despite being highly educated and qualified. His father keeps asking him why he hasn’t ‘done anything’ with his gifts, while his brothers question whether he might be gay. As a straight white man microcosm, this family demonstrates how hard it is to get masculinity ‘right’ in this day and age.
The director asks us to consider this:
“Do we have conflicting desires for the straight white men of the world to make space for others and for the straight white men in our own lives to succeed?” (quote from program).
Straight White Men showcases this tension with humour and pathos. It offers no solution to the big questions of identity politics, but leaves the door open for heated debate over coffee after the show. And debate over coffee is exactly what we did…in a fine display of middle class privilege.
Straight White Men runs until 13 August at the Roundhouse Theatre in Brisbane. Tickets available now!
I received complimentary tickets to this performance, but all opinions are my own.