by Meg Gilbert and Becca Jennings
Time Out New York has called her “one of the best experimental playwrights in America.” She’s the first and only Asian American woman to have her work produced on Broadway. She’s a two-time Obie Award-winner and a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient. And this season, Young Jean Lee’s complexly explosive avant-garde play, Straight White Men, is coming straight from Broadway to FST’s Keating Theatre stage.
At just forty-four years old, Young Jean Lee is at the top of the NYC Theater ladder, called by The New York Times “the best downtown writer of her generation.” And it’s not just New York – from Budapest to Brooklyn, Ohio to London, Austria to Austin, Lee is an unstoppable force being produced around the globe.
What’s the secret to her success? Perhaps it’s her unique view as a first generation American. Perhaps it’s her subversive style of casting actors before her plays are even written. Perhaps it’s her process, which she describes as “risky” and “at times, terrifying,” that is always collaborative. Perhaps she simply dares to ask the hard questions. Questions that challenge audiences.
“My enemy is complacency,” Lee told L Magazine. “I hate it in myself and I hate it in general.” Straight White Men addresses how our society views complacency, especially in the face of privilege, questioning what it means to achieve one’s full potential and meet others’ expectations. “I think it’s good to ask questions,” continued Lee, “to have things split apart and become fragmented and contradictory.” Those fragments and contradictions provide a layered, intelligent, and sometimes unsettling examination of the traditional American drama, such as Oleanna by David Mamet or True West by Sam Shepard.
Straight White Men follows the events of Christmas Eve and the following morning as brothers Drew, Jake, and Matt reunite in the basement hang-out area with their father, years after their mother’s passing. There’s adolescent behavior, profanity, dancing, laughing, Chinese food, egg-nog and even a traditional pie that Matt has baked – not to mention the lingering pain of grief and the expulsion of secrets. As Jesse Green of The New York Times said, “It affects people of all stripes.”
For Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men is a deeply observant look into the American male. “I think the play is so insightful because Lee is not a straight white male,” said Hopkins. “Quite the opposite – she would be considered an ‘outsider.’ She is ‘the other.’ And I can think of no better point of view than the viewpoint of ‘the other,’ to better understand the privilege, as well as the challenge of being a straight white male in America today.”
Hopkins first saw the production in New York in July of 2018 and knew immediately that he needed to find a way to bring the play to FST. “Lee’s view is insightful, humane, warm, cold, alarming, and very, very funny,” continued Hopkins. “It is also a drama. It’s a great play for FST. And a challenge for our audience.”
Straight White Men is not your typical piece of classic American theatre—the show begins even before the first scripted word is uttered. “This playwright purposefully challenges the audience from the moment we enter the theatre,” said Hopkins. Before the actors even step foot onstage, rap music by a female artist will be played loudly through the speakers. “The purpose of the playwright here is to take the audience out of their comfort zone and to create a context for the play that gives us a fresh view of ‘straight white men,’” Hopkins explained. “And then the play is introduced in such a way as to provide a fresh context for us to view three adult men visiting their father at Christmas.”
But when a question Ed and his three sons can’t answer interrupts their holiday cheer, each is forced to confront his own identity. “The artistic challenge in producing this play is to make sure that the comedy rings loud and true, while the ensuring drama touches the heart,” concluded Hopkins.
Now at the top of her field, Young Jean Lee pushes the boundaries of her medium, utilizing experimental form and social survey to create forward-thinking plays that are not for the faint of heart. Through it all, one thing has remained consistent: she continues to challenge herself and her audience, paving the way for Asian-American playwrights and making an impact wherever she goes. As 20th century writer Jerzy Kosinski said, “The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.”
Straight White Men plays in FST’s Keating Theatre beginning December 12. Subscriptions and single tickets are available online or by calling the FST Box Office at 941.366.9000. Warning: This play contains adult language.