Straight White Men writer Young Jean Lee: ‘Diversity is not some moral imperative like vegetable eating’

The experimental playwright whose hit drama made her the first Asian-American woman to have a play on Broadway talks to Isobel Lewis about how it came about, male mental health and addressing the issue of representation in theatre

Wednesday 17 November 2021 06:30
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<p>Check mates: (from left) Charlie Condou, Cary Crankson, Alex Mugnaioni and Simon Rouse in the London production of ‘Straight White Men’ </p>

Check mates: (from left) Charlie Condou, Cary Crankson, Alex Mugnaioni and Simon Rouse in the London production of ‘Straight White Men’

Experimental theatre: it’s a dreaded phrase for many a playwright. But for Young Jean Lee, whom The New York Times called “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation”, the subversive stuff was child’s play. The last show she would ever want to make, conversely, was a naturalistic, three-act play about straight white men. “The idea of writing a play with a beginning, middle and end and characters who resemble human beings, it was all stuff I had no interest in,” she says. “So I combined it all into this one nightmare scenario and then went after it.”

First staged in 2014, the resulting family drama Straight White Men follows a family of four men (widowed father Ed and his three adult sons, Drew, Jake and Matt) as they get together over the Christmas period. Feeling the loss of their mother, who raised them to check their privilege before that phrase was widely used, the boys wrestle with each other, trade insults and perform “ironically racist” plays and dances. Their lives are at difficult stages. Jake is recently divorced, while Matt has moved back in with their dad, his brothers berating a lack of ambition he doesn’t see as a problem. At its heart, it’s a play about men who can talk about just about anything – except their feelings.

Since that first performance, Straight White Men has been performed around the world, with a 2018 production starring Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider making Lee the first Asian-American woman to have her own show on Broadway. Now, the play is receiving its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse. If the show’s title is putting you off – a reaction Lee says has been present since the first performance – rest assured the play does not seek to demonise straight white men. Instead, Lee says, it’s an exploration of male mental health “that takes the problem very seriously and tries to treat [it] with as much compassion as possible”. Few audience members who come in with those preconceptions based on the title leave with them intact, she adds.

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