“Straight White Men” at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company provokes laughter and provides insight that will dominate conversations well after the play is over.
While “The Christians” at Steppenwolf welcomed attendees with a gospel concert, “Straight White Men” welcomes theater-goers with bass-pumping music by artists like Big Freedia. Some in the audience might bob their heads to the music and dance in their seats, but others might find the volume and lyrics—especially when “Yankin” by Lady comes on—uncomfortable. To ease the discomfort two cast members dance up and down the aisles handing out ear plugs for those who need it. They both wear jumpsuits where one has the word “Witch” on the back and the other with the words “2 Cute 2 be Cis” on the back.
Once the show is ready to begin the two cast members get on stage and open the show. Both transgender performers welcome the audience by explaining transgender pronouns and explaining that while some people were not happy with the music that it demonstrates what it’s like to live in a world that doesn’t accommodate to your needs. The two performers never return to the show except to place the actors in their positions before scenes like their hands of God.
With this type of introduction, it would be understandable to think this might turn into a theatrical destruction of the straight white male. However, playwright and director Young Jean Lee has no interest in doing that and actually does her best to understand the straight white male. When Lee writes a show she pushes herself out of her comfort zone and what she knows. In a show about identity politics, Lee has expressed that the last group she would’ve made a show about is straight white men.
The play features a widowed father spending time with his older sons during Christmas time. The brothers grew up very aware of their advantages in life as their parents pushed them to fight for social justice. The point is made early when they play their modified version of Monopoly called Privilege. The boys grew up protesting discrimination in school plays, joining activist groups, and challenging stereotypes. Now in their 30s the two younger brothers are happy with their careers, one is an author and the other is a banker, and the oldest brother, who the younger two looked up to, lives at home with their dad working in a temporary position for a nonprofit.
Ryan Hallahan, Madison Dirks, and Brian Slaten capture the brotherly chemistry perfectly, which brings plenty of laughs with their immaturity, competitiveness, and dance moves. Steppenwolf favorite Alan Wilder does a great job as the father you can’t help but love. There’s more than enough fun and laughter in this play to balance out the real conflict that will stay with audiences for days.
Matt, the older brother, has a Ph.D. and was the valedictorian of his class at Harvard, but his older brothers and his dad can’t help but think that he is either depressed or being a white martyr who is choosing to underachieve to give an opportunity to oppressed minorities. No one believes Matt is living up to his potential except for Matt.
How you dissect this conflict heavily depends on who you are. If you’re a minority you might see this as a critique on the self-proclaimed woke white male, who thinks he understands systematic oppression but also believes only he knows how to fix it and he knows what is best. The younger brothers spend plenty of time projecting their own flaws and potential fixes on Matt but never listen to him.
However, the importance of conversation after the play comes through when you speak to some of the straight white males the play is depicting. They might interpret the play as highlighting the constant pressures they undergo to be cutthroat, to sell themselves, and to live in a society where the definition of success has nothing to do with happiness and feeling content.
Young Jean Lee being able to both portray this pressure along with critiquing the actions of the woke individuals makes this a masterful production.
“Straight White Men” will be at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., until March 19. Tickets range from $20–$89. For schedule and more information visit steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/2016-17/straightwhitemen.