Some plays are produced for enjoyment and laughter, some for deep introspection about social issues. Young Jean Lee, the first Asian-American playwright on Broadway, seems to have created a genre of her own, as explored in a recent New York Times article.
Lee's plays create "unsafe spaces" on stage aimed at making her audience uncomfortable, so much so that a frequent comment as attendees filter out after the show is, "Why would the playwright do this to us?" One could say that her purpose is to make her viewers cringe, to overwhelm them with the urge to cover their eyes and ears.
She confronts issues of identity politics head-on: her play "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven" is chock-full of moments of ugly stereotypes of Asian-Americans spreadeagled on the stage, or shocking recordings of violence, or stock stories of the immigrant experience, complete with intergenerational conflict, self-hate, and failed attempts at acculturation. Her work is complex, winding, and poignant, all at unexpected moments, constantly throwing the audience off balance. It becomes increasingly unclear whether average viewers are expected to laugh at the joke, realize that they are the joke, or recognize their role in propagating the joke. Everything is muddled, with no clear demarcations in sight.
"Straight White Men" revolves around the same core of destabilizing viewers, but focuses on a family dealing with the idea of privilege, and which is worse: embracing it, or running away from it. But outside of that basic framework, the play is completely open to interpretation. The piece is so open, in fact, that each viewer will probably take away very different lessons. In a climate of Trumpism with immigrant families being separated, reproductive rights being revoked, and discrimination at times even being encouraged, Lee worries about the play's reception.
Particularly relevant to today's inflammatory political climate is the question of "us" vs. "them," a theme Lee tackles throughout not only "Straight White Men," but all her works. The two concepts are always blurred; for instance, in "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven," even character names change. This specific blurriness rails against complacency and groupthink. And even though Lee, a second generation Korean-American, believes that identity politics saved her life in the isolating town of Pullman, Washington, she also believes that the term has drawn a line in the dirt: good vs. evil, queer woman of color vs. entitled, privileged white person. She explains, "I feel like compassion is very out right now. Curiosity is out. What’s in is condemnation and punishment. Now is not the moment for nuance; people do not want it.” But within her plays exists constant slippage between "our" and "your," mingling the labels in what the critic Margo Jefferson called "syntactical miscegenation." This refusal to surrender to such easy tribalism, an "us" vs. "them" mentality, threads through Lee's productions.
But in "Straight White Men," Lee drills even deeper. You can dismiss your gender, your race, your culture, your sexual orientation, your religion, your anything as much as you like, but there's something too many of us seem to want: to be in power. At our cores, we want to be in control, to enjoy status, to be wanted, to be admired. As human beings, we shrink away in terror from one thing in particular: weakness. And it is this refusal to be weak that dictates so much cruelty to others, and perhaps most horribly, to ourselves.