Family gatherings are often hard work, whether it be Christmas, Ramadan or the Chinese New Year.
While we live in a richly diverse and multicultural planet, there is much that is universal to all cultures. When a genetic clan reunites, it is often a reminder that shared heritage does not necessarily equate to a shared ideology or life experience. Often the biggest cause of resentment within families can be diverging degrees of success or fortune. The State Theatre Company of South Australia’s latest play, 'Straight White Men' written by Young Jean Lee, places the spotlight on the drama that ensues when a family consisting entirely of the most privileged in society, Caucasian guys who are attracted only to women, reconvene after living their separate and drastically different lives. It is a meeting between three brothers and their father. They are all from the dominant faction, so life should be easy and fulfilment attainable, right?
Two of the three brothers in the play have attained the conventional trappings of a successful modern life; financial wealth and artistic acclaim respectively. The remaining brother struggles with his inability to capture these external markers of success, despite his fortunate upbringing and social status. Lucas Stibbard, who plays acclaimed author Drew, has been given pause to ponder the nature of success as a consequence of his role in the work.
“For myself, I don’t know [what success in life is] but I think the process of this play is constantly challenging that for us all in the room sitting around as a group of straight white men having that proselytised for us; I think it was so clever that Young Jean Lee has chosen the dominant paradigm to actually voice this because funnily enough people tend to listen."
Acclaimed Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee has devoted much of her career thus far to surgically deconstructing the concept of race. Young, as an outsider looking in on the white men’s club, has been able to render a likeness and authenticity beyond that which is obtained through self-reflection. Lucas explains why he thinks Young was able to so effectively capture the voice of the characters.
“I think if you have grown up in a system where you have to constantly check yourself and constantly be aware that the things around you are things that you don’t have because others have them and the systems that have been placed around that, you look at those while we take them for granted.”
Lucas cites some examples of things that he previously took for granted.
“One of the big learning curves for me across the last decade is the myth of meritocracy: the fact that you get things because you work hard for them, but also because of the way you look, the body you’re in and what that group of bodies has done to other groups of bodies over the past millennia.”
Although both the title of the play and the themes dealt within may appear provocative, the subject matter is handled in such a palatable and subtle manner that some have likened it to a sitcom, on the surface. To challenge existing beliefs, you must firstly capture an audience’s attention, which this play does. Lucas, a playwright himself, has great admiration for the script with which he is working.
“It is so well considered, it is incredibly well crafted; it’s lensed within what appears to be straight-up heightened realism,” he says.
“It is a remarkably exquisite work; we keep finding other things; she has thought so carefully and crafted something so deep and so intricate that the danger is that you can sit there and just go 'oh it’s just a comedy, it has no politics', but that’s because you’re ignoring the framing.”
'Straight White Men' is a play that entertains but in the process initiates a conversation about race and privilege that is urgently needed. It is like the family Christmas party; it is going to be awkward but someone needs to tell Uncle Joe that he has had too much to drink and ignoring the problem will only make matters worse.
'Straight White Men' performs the Adelaide Festival Centre from 1-23 July.