‘Straight White Men’ Takes On Privilege, Assumptions

Young Jean Lee
Courtesy of Young Jean Lee
Young Jean Lee
Courtesy of Young Jean Lee

‘Straight White Men’ Takes On Privilege, Assumptions

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In her play Straight White Men, director and playwright Young Jean Lee explores privilege and stereotypes as they apply to the title group of characters: In this case, a retired widower and his three adult sons. 

Lee said the play sprung out of an observation that we’re living in a historical moment. 

“Really for the first time ever, straight white men are experiencing what it’s like for people to attach a label to them based on their ethnicity and gender,” she said.

After debuting in New York City in 2014, Straight White Men has since been adapted and is now playing through March 19 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre

Morning Shift’s Tony Sarabia spoke with Lee about researching the play and her motivation for writing it. 

Tony Sarabia: How did you go about crafting this story?

Young Jean Lee: I’m female. I’m Asian-American. I don’t have any siblings. I’m an only child. So this play pretty much represented all of the things I know nothing about. 

So I did just dozens and dozens and dozens of interviews with straight white men. I asked them about their lives and their relationships with their brothers, and I asked them for personal stories. One character’s a banker and one character’s a writer who teaches at Columbia. The father is an engineer. So I interviewed lots of men in each of those particular categories. I interviewed a lot of bankers. The stories are so specific but there was a lot of overlap, and that’s how these characters came into being. 

Sarabia: What motivated you in the first place to put this together?

Lee: I had noticed that we’re in a historically interesting moment where, really for the first time ever, straight white men are experiencing what it’s like for people to attach a label to them based on their ethnicity and gender and attribute negative characteristics to them based on those labels.

Sarabia: Did your motivation have anything to do with where we are politically, with the now-presidency of Donald Trump putting straight white maleness even more in the spotlight?

Lee: This play started well before I ever had any inkling that Trump might be president. But I was noticing something in cultural politics that I thought was problematic, which was this rhetoric of “straight white men need to get out of the way and sit down and shut up.” 

And while I totally understood where it was coming from — it’s a reaction against some very problematic dynamics — you can’t tell an entire ethnic group to stay out of the way. If you really run with that logic, what you end up with is genocide. It’s just not a tenable position to take about any group. So that’s part of what interested me about this topic. 

Sarabia: The focus on personal success seems to be a big issue for the family in the play. The main character is going through a difficult time and his brothers were down on him for different reasons.

Lee: Yes, and what that came out of was when I first started the project, I was sitting in a room full of women and queer people and minorities and I asked them, “What do you think of straight white men?” And they had a long list of complaints and I said, “Well, what do you want straight white men to do about that?” They said, “These are all the qualities that we desire in straight white men.” 

So I made that list and I went home and I created this character Matt, and I brought him back into the room and they all completely hated him. I had made this perfect straight white man and they hated him

Sarabia: Did they give reasons why?

Lee: Yes, because he was a loser. That’s what I’m talking about — that discrepancy between saying that we want social justice, but having this core value system of thinking people should succeed. I think that’s part of what the characters in the play wrestled with.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.