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Straight White Men at Southwark Playhouse

A play can sometimes leave you feeling perplexed, exasperated, but still with a sense of being entertained. This is especially true of Young Jean Lee’s one-act play Straight White Men which has recently opened at the Southwark playhouse.

Kamari Romeo - Straight White Men. Pamela Raith Photography.
Kamari Romeo – Straight White Men. Pamela Raith Photography.

Christmas is a time for family and Ed (Simon Rouse) is delighted to have his three boys back home for the festivities. The eldest son, and Harvard graduate, Matt (Charlie Condou) has recently moved back in with his father. They are joined by the middle child and recently divorced banker, Jake (Alex Mugnaioni) and the baby of the group, novelist, and teacher Drew (Cary Crankson). Back together, the boys, well they become boys again. Larking about, calling each other by childish nicknames and generally behaving like overgrown kids the way siblings often do when they get together. Ed is not better, buying the boys matching Christmas PJs to have their traditional Xmas Eve Chinese takeaway. So far, so normal you might think. Then Matt starts to cry and suddenly their straight white male planet is spinning off its orbit.

I entered the auditorium and walked into a wall of sound. As the audience took its seat our ears were assaulted by a series of hip hop and rap songs played at a volume guaranteed to make certain people feel uncomfortable, or does it? If rap is your thing, then this was probably literal music to your ears. And, as the two Persons in Charge (Kamari Romeo and Kim Tatum) explain “we are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account” which is a nice way of bringing in the story itself.

Now this is where the exasperation comes in for me. On the surface, the family is fairly standard, white middle class, straight, male – like everyone that matters in America. But of course, underneath there are issues, and these are brought out by Matt’s sudden and unexpected breakdown over the Chinese. This brings out the various issues that each of the rest of the family have, as representatives of the standard USA populace. However, things have moved on since the piece was written. After all, when you look at the President of the USA, we have had a POC in the role and an openly gay man running for office. However, I get the point that on the whole, the world is run by SWM and, much as they decry the system of automatic privilege that propels them up the societal ladder, they aren’t ever really going to get rid of it. The problem for me was the ambiguity.

It was never established why Matt was crying, and as such there was no resolution to his problems – if indeed he really had any. I’m sure most of the audience could, in their own minds, work out what was wrong, but would they all have the same answer? I’m sure it would have created a lot of discussion in the bar afterwards.

Everything about the play is designed to remind you that it is a play and not real life – or is it? Suzu Sakai’s set – a standard drab family snug, with a well-worn sofa in the middle – looks very believable, except it is set back from walls with signs like “LIVE SHOW” reminding you it is a set. Beth Colley’s costume feels right for the characters – except the PJs to me should have had much more of a Christmas motif/feel about them. The actors were pretty much spot on, and I found way too many similarities between the three brothers and my own relationship whenever my two brothers and I got together. In fact, despite being a GWM rather than SWM, I really identified a lot with Matt and the choices he had made which mirrored some of my own way too closely. I was highly impressed with the cast’s energy which was high throughout. This is a very physical play and Director Steven Kunis and Movement Director Christina Fulcher really put the cast through it, with a long dancing drinking scene that looked particularly exhausting.

I’m still not sure if Straight White Men worked for me. The lack of a resolution was irritating, but the analysis of what it means to be the archetypal successful SWM was fascinating. The actors were engaging and the script was both funny and poignant in places. The use of the Persons in Charge – whilst excellent performed – as a narrative device was sort of understandable but I’m not sure, once they had set the scene, they really added too much to the story. I think I would have liked to see them on stage during the family scenes to give more of an idea that they were controlling things. Overall, I would recommend this production. It is well thought out and executed with a first-rate cast and a story that is either a plea from the heart, and an indictment of a flawed social system. Either way, there will be plenty to talk about in the bar afterwards.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Straight White Men by Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee, is a hilarious and revealing play about the most unoppressed of this world’s peoples.

They are feared, envied, occasionally attacked and derided. But pitied? When personal identity is essential and privilege is a problem, what is a straight white man to do?

Games are played. Chinese food is ordered. Brotherly pranks and trashtalk distract them from the issue that threatens to ruin the testosterone-fuelled, boys-will-be-boys celebration. In this raucous, surprising and fearless work, Lee takes an outside look at the traditional father/son narrative, shedding new light on that theatrical storyline we have come to know all too well.

But, and here is the twist, the People in Charge of proceedings are neither straight, nor white, nor male…

Straight White Men by Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee
Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD


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