The title of Young Jean Lee’s play, Straight White Men, probably makes you expect a scathing parody of privilege.
Consider that its playwright once had a theatre company whose motto was “Destroy the audience!” and that the Village Voice has dubbed her the “queen of unease”, and you might foresee an even more nasty assault.
It turns out, though, that you would be entirely wrong.
“This is not an attack,” ITSAZOO Productions’ Chelsea Haberlin, who’s codirecting the Canadian premiere of the work at the Gateway Theatre, assures the Straight over the phone after rehearsal. “It’s far more complex. It’s easy to point fingers.”
In fact, in this nuanced story, you may find the men of the titular cultural group treated with authentic sympathy and compassion.
“It’s not meant to be a mockery,” says Frank Theatre artistic director Fay Nass, Haberlin’s codirector and long-time collaborator, speaking to the Straight in a separate phone call. “It’s genuine and generous, and hopefully that will translate.”
The play earned wide attention on Lee’s home turf, New York, when it became the first Broadway play by an Asian-American woman. And it is far from your average Broadway play. Within the stage’s central frame, we watch the story of a middle-class white man and his three adult sons unfold (played by Peter Anderson, Daniel Martin, Carlo Marks, and Sebastien Archibald). They’ve gathered for Christmas, and eventually their bro banter and roughhousing shift to reveal hints of a universal midlife unhappiness that lurks beneath their power and privilege.
But hosting and observing that action, outside the frame, are two People in Charge—a pair of queer, gender-nonconforming people of colour, in this case rap poet Kim “Kimmortal” Villagante and two-spirit Coast Salish/Sto:lo artist Raven John. Sometimes they position the male characters like puppets between acts. Haberlin says the idea is that we watch them watching and reacting to the play. We see it through their eyes.
The setup has forced Haberlin, who’s been working with the script for three years, to rethink her role. And an early workshop session prompted her to bring on Nass, who studied with her at the University of Victoria and has collaborated with her at Neworld Theatre. Nass is a queer theatre maker of Persian descent.
“It became very clear during that time that, because the play is an examination of straight white male identity and is told through the lens of gender-nonbinary people of colour, having a director who was straight and white—a.k.a. me—would not serve the piece,” Haberlin reflects. “There needed to be someone who related to the People in Charge and was connected to their identities. We realized that everyone who heard the script had a different experience with it that was largely based on their lived experience.
“It was incredibly valuable to me to have Fay in the room during the workshop and we worked really well together,” she continues. “When we decided to move ahead with a full production, it made total sense to have Fay codirect. We are close and get along really well, but in so many ways couldn’t be more different. That difference allows us to unearth so much more in the play.”
Haberlin says the process continues to challenge her, and has made her reassess almost everything she does as a director. “It has made me self-conscious at times and very aware of the traditional power structures that exist in a rehearsal process,” she observes. “These traditional structures don’t feel appropriate when I’m working with the People in Charge. They’re in charge. Not me. That has been delicate to navigate and I’m learning more about collaboration and how to break down the traditional structures that exist within the theatre.
“But, funnily enough,” she adds, “when it comes to directing the Straight White Men and the story that unfolds inside the frame, the process is very traditional and I am definitely the director who is leading the way—just the same as most scripted plays I’ve done in terms of process.”
Nass says part of the process has been giving the rehearsals a sense of openness and safety. “I feel like there’s a sense in the room that Chelsea and I can work together to bring out our two lived experiences,” she comments. “By calling it Straight White Men, we know that we are not seeing a play like every other play in Vancouver. And for me, being outside of all those three identities, I stand in a position that my voice matters in the room—and also the collaboration with Chelsea matters.”
Another big part of this production is its Talk Forward series, which invites audiences to engage more deeply with the loaded ideas—straightness, whiteness, maleness, and beyond. Each performance will be followed by a discussion hosted by speakers like Rumble Theatre’s Jiv Parasram, Manology program director David Hatfield, and Children of the Street program facilitator Hayden Averill.
For those who missed SpeakEasy Theatre’s sharp production of Lee’s The Shipment in 2017, all of this should prove why the New York Times has called Lee “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation”.
“I don’t think we have power over how people will interpret it,” Nass concludes. Maybe not, but one thing is certain: they’ll have an awful lot to discuss on the walk or ride home.
Straight White Men is at the Gateway Theatre from Thursday (February 6) to February 15.