Garnering attention on Broadway for being the first play produced by a female Asian-American playwright and for its subversive take on white male privilege, Richmond’s Gateway Theatre presents the Canadian premiere of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men.
Straight White Men isn’t the first time Vancouver audiences have seen Lee’s work on a local stage, nor her ability to stir controversy with her subject matter. Just last year, Lee’s subversive exploration of Black identity, The Shipment, received a remount of the original 2017 Jessie Award-winning production from Speakeasy Theatre.
Set in the Midwestern United States, Straight White Men is the story of Ed and his three adult sons who have come together to celebrate Christmas. Cheerful trash-talk, pranks and Chinese takeout are peppered with a little casual homophobia, some light misogyny, and a dash of racism.
On its surface, Straight White Men explores the question of how can these four men lead a moral life given the privilege they share as straight white men. Playwright Lee digs a little deeper, though, by asking what do we want straight white men to do that they’re not doing, and what happens when they do that?
“For the first time in modern history straight white men are a subcategory [and] they are no longer the assumed default human with everyone else falling to the margins,” says co-director Chelsea Haberlin. “This idea is a big one for me. As a white person who has been working on theatre centred in identity politics for many years, I was longing for a piece that compassionately yet critically dug into whiteness.”
Gateway Theatre’s interim producer Barbara Tomasic acknowledges the duality to Lee’s work as potentially alienating for some while being familiar and reassuring for others.
“The magic of Lee’s writing is when the two overlaps and one is left with the sense that things are not quite as they seem,” she says. “In a safe space and for a short time, [Straight White Men] brilliantly allows much of our audience to feel the discomfort that is a daily experience for people who exist outside the mainstream in our society.”
Each performance during the Gateway run of Straight White Men will feature a discussion hosted by a guest speaker. Themed around one of the identities explored in the play – straightness, whiteness, and maleness – they are intended to help audiences to engage more deeply with the ideas and themes of Lee’s work.
“The performance ends with an opportunity to unpack what we have seen,” says Tomasic. “Through a facilitated discussion, we are encouraged to share our thoughts about what we have seen and heard and maybe unravel some of the new ideas and perspectives we are exposed to.”
Straight White Men opens at Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Rd, Richmond) on February 6 and continues through February 15. Visit gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.