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Majority rules

An interview with Young Jean Lee, playwright of Straight White Men, running April 23-25 at Hebbel am Ufer as part of the Männlich Weiß Hetero festival

Straight White Men © Julieta Cervantes

21.04. – The concept of “privilege” is turning into one of the most talked-about concepts of 2015. But what does this mean for those at the top of the pyramid – straight white men? In a festival named after this demographic, Hebbel am Ufer has curated a program of theater, music and dance that attempts to explore this question.

Andros Zins-Browne’s The Host addresses the trope of the American über-male - the cowboy – in a battle against an inflatable set, while gender discourse meets pop performance in T/HE/Y, featuring Josep Caballero García, Black cracker and Océan LeRoy, each performing the others’ (non-normative) masculinities, exploring what it means to “act male”.

Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men, though, is the namesake of the festival and is perhaps the most traditionally dramatic piece in the program. As unsettling as it is enjoyable, it follows a father and his three sons, all returning to celebrate Christmas in a suburban American living room. They play video games and jostle for attention, revealing the circumstances that have led each of them to come back home. We asked the young Korean playwright what attracted her to this subject matter and why she wants to make her audience feel uncomfortable.

Why did you choose to write about straight white men for this work? For me, as an Asian female, I'm always aware of myself as an Asian female, but for straight white men, they don't have to think of themselves as their ethnic identity. I thought it was interesting because I feel like things are changing now – suddenly straight white men are having to conform to what everyone else has had to deal with: being reduced to their gender, race and sexual orientation.

The play is perhaps a lot more conventionally dramatic than a lot of your previous work – what made you choose that format? This form is the “straight white man” of theatrical genres! It looks so much like a traditional play, but it actually isn't in the sense that there's no resolution. All of our audiences have had trouble applauding the show because it makes them feel accused and a little cheated, and that was done intentionally. The first version of the play that we did was more palatable and crowd-pleasing, but I wasn’t happy with that. It had no impact. I think about it like a grain of sand that gets stuck in your brain. There needs to be a little something that stays with you.

The play deals particularly with the character Matt, who struggles with being more “privileged” than others he encounters in the social work he does, despite being incredibly qualified. What does that word mean to you? There's this growing movement to critique straight white men for their privilege, but our whole system of values is based on the success of the individual. That puts straight white men like Matt in a weird position – what society values is an individual who is succeeding, working towards their goals, but, because straight white men have privilege, it's not heroic for them to do what society expects them to do. So for me, I can just work towards my goals, and I'm supposedly making the world a better place, because I'm making it more diverse. I feel like there's a bit of hypocrisy in there.

The play features four straight white male characters - how do you show your own non-white, female perspective through the play? I decided to start the show with this raunchy, female hip-hop music, and what ends up happening is that the young people, queer people and people of color in the audience feel totally at home, while the older, whiter, richer audience gets more uncomfortable. They feel less welcome, which ended up being a big deal.

The script also calls for a transgender person to be the host, who makes the curtain speech and leads the transitions between the scenes, just to give the impression that the show is under the control of someone who isn't a [cis] straight white man.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Männlich Weiß Hetero, Apr. 21–May 5, Hebbel am Ufer

Straight White Men, Apr. 23–25, 20:30, HAU1



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