The setup, and setting, for Straight White Men, a play by Young Jean Lee (We're Gonna Die) seem at first to be the stuff of a sitcom: Three siblings, a banker named Jamie, a respected author and academic named Drew, and a Harvard grad named Matt, visit their father, Ed, on Christmas Eve. There are good-natured pranks, tasteless jokes, and male bonding moments galore, but as the play progresses, a more serious theme begins to emerge. As the plot unfolds, we learn that despite a promising start, Matt has essentially dropped out of his own life and has actually moved back in with his father.
As the brothers and their father discuss Matt's current situation, Matt himself claims to be happy, and says that, as a privileged, straight white male, he's doing the world a service by dropping out of society and perhaps providing a space for someone who isn't any of those things.
What follows is an increasingly complex discussion about the role of the straight white man in a complicated country where these men were taught to win at all costs, but now find themselves criticized for those advantages. In other words, in a world where it's getting increasingly unacceptable for a white man to exercise his traditional power and privilege, how do they adjust to that new reality, and to the fear of losing what they've acquired?
Those are difficult questions, and Rodney Lee Rogers, the director of the upcoming PURE Theatre production of Straight White Men, doesn't claim that he, or even the play itself, have the answers.
"The play itself delves into privilege," he says, "and how these straight white men are kind of coming to grips with the advantages they've been given over the years and the way in which society is readdressing them. They're all aware of the fact that they've been given things that other people don't have, and they're wrestling with that, while also wrestling with that winning mentality that comes in all Americans; that 'win-at-all-costs' mentality."
That awareness and acknowledgement of privilege is perhaps the key to the play; in lesser hands, these characters might have been uneducated, backward-thinking caricatures. But Lee makes all of these men progressive, even liberal, thinkers, neither letting them or the audience off the hook.
"This is a particularly socially conscious family," Rogers says. "They are completely likable characters. These are not unthoughtful people. They are very thoughtful guys who do not oppose cultural change; they're just trying to integrate into cultural change. But what that attempt comes up against is that 'I need to go out and dominate the world' perspective."
If it sounds like Straight White Men is more about conversation than plot, well, that's probably correct. But Rogers finds the work compelling because the play never comes down on one side or the other, and somehow manages to provide laughs both broad and incisive while discussing a touchy subject.
"The play is almost like a trick on the audience," he says. "We've had lots of discussions in rehearsals about what it means, and I think what's different with this play is that it's not really about what it means. It's about the conversation it's going to spark and what you think it means, because it doesn't really answer those questions. If you look at something like Death Of A Salesman, that's a story with a point. Whereas this story leaves you with . . . you don't pick a side, and you don't really know who's right, and it's wrapped up in this almost sitcom-like, men-behaving-badly setting."
Rogers says one of the things he likes about the play is that it essentially negates the question of what a writer, specifically Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee, is entitled or qualified to write about.
"There's been a lot of talk in theater and film who a writer is capable of understanding, or who can and can't write about a culture," he says. "And this is just an example that anyone can get into anyone else's skin. I believe that in art, it's silly to think we can't do that, because that's what art is about. What this Korean-American woman has done with this piece is flip a lot of our standards about what a play should be on its head, and wrap that in the idea of, 'What is privilege, how do we deal with it. Are we inviting everyone in? Do we have policies and practices that make people not feel comfortable?'"
Perhaps the best indicator of the complexities in the play and the effect they might have on the audience is that Rogers himself says he still hasn't come to grips with Straight White Men, even though he's directing it.
"The interesting part is that I don't completely get it, but I know there's something there," he says. "There are some plays you just GET, this one I still constantly evaluate. But I think that's what's been very exciting about this piece; I'm still discovering it."