‘Privilege’

First Asian-American woman to write a Broadway play takes on identity politics in ‘Straight White Men’

Playwright Young Jean Lee. (YouTube / The Steppenwolf Theater)

On July 23, playwright Young Jean Lee will become the first Asian-American woman to put a play on Broadway when Straight White Men, her stark take on how white America is adapting to “a societal shift” in which they’ve gone from being “the default human” to just another “identity category.”

The play follows the lives of three brothers whose mother raised them to be aware of their privileged status — for instance by retrofitting Monopoly into a game she called “Privilege,” in which players would lose money for being white while passing go. The eldest son, Matt, grows up to exemplify these values — despite earning a degree from Harvard, he returns home to care for his frail father and works a humble and difficult job in social services. But despite the family’s apparently liberal values, Matt finds himself lambasted on all sides for his refusal to be dominant and assertive — for being “a loser.”

Lee, who was born in South Korea in 1974 to an evangelical Christian couple but moved with them to Pullman, Washington, in 1976, told The New York Times that she endured almost incomprehensible levels of racism growing up in the almost exclusively white town. Straight White Men, she explained, is about an ongoing demographic and societal shift that has left white Americans trying to understand what it means to be classified, stereotyped, and even stigmatized as part of an “identity category” — similarly to how she was growing up.

From left: Austin Pendleton, Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson and James Stanley in “Straight White Men” at the Public Theater in New York, Nov. 6, 2014. In the play written and directed by Young Jean Lee, personal issues come to the surface when a widower and his three sons gather for the holidays. (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

“They’re reacting to it in the way everybody reacts to it when that happens to them. Nobody likes it, but they’re experiencing it for the first time,” she said.

Ahead of writing the play, she said she asked dozens of straight white men how they felt their fellow straight white men should behave. In these interviews, they described a passive unambitious man who listened rather than take center stage himself. But when she wrote a character that fit that description, she said, she was surprised to hear from her workshop participants that they hated him for his weakness.

“Despite all their commitment to social justice — what they believed in most was not being a loser,” she recalled.

Lee has a decidedly aggressive and confrontational approach to identity politics, but says she hopes her latest play will not stoke hatred in her audience, but instead empathy and self-reflection.

“It’s like you’re good or you’re evil — you’re a queer woman of color or you’re some version of entitled privileged person,” she explained bluntly. “I feel like compassion is very out right now. Curiosity is out. What’s in is condemnation and punishment. Now is not the moment for nuance — people do not want it.”

Speaking with The New York Times’ Parul Sehgal, Lee also spoke at length about her concerns for the reception of her play at a time when President Donald Trump has harnessed the power of insecurity over white male identity and transformed it into a salient, sometimes terrifying, political force.

To hear more from Lee about Straight White Men, watch the video below.

Read the full story at The New York Times and NBC News.

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