Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review of Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Straight White Men. It was written and directed by Young Jean Lee. It was about a family of four straight white men who are together for Christmas: the dad, Ed (Alan Wilder); the oldest son, Matt (Brian Slaten); the middle son, Jake (Madison Dirks); and the youngest son, Drew (Ryan Hallahan). The mother in the family has passed away and they are having Christmas without her. They are reflecting on the past and thinking about their responsibilities and privileges as straight white men and what is okay to do and not to do. They are also goofing off and having dance parties. I though this was a very interesting and hilarious show. I'm really glad I got to see it. It was interesting to see a day in the life of a suburban, politically liberal family; you get to see all the antics they get up to as well as their discussions of deeper topics. It really gets your mind working.

There is loud hip hop music playing when you first come in. I am a fan of a lot of hip hop, so I was nodding my head and tapping my feet. It is supposed to make some people feel uncomfortable and other people feel more comfortable. I think I was in the middle. I would have liked all the songs, except I was sitting between my parents, and there were some very explicit lyrics happening. There were definitely people--not my parents--around me that really did not like the music and felt really uncomfortable. Elliott (Elliott Jenetopulos) and Will (Will Wilhelm), have been dancing around in the audience and handing out ear plugs. Then they start the show and start to talk about themselves and what pronouns they each prefer to be referred to as (they and them), and basically warning everyone that the rest of the players in the show will be straight white men. And they tell you about the experiment with the loud music. Some people seemed to feel a little betrayed by the experiment, but the program explained it as well and I found the experiment very interesting. I would like to do an experiment like this myself. They said, "If you enjoyed that music, congratulations on your moment of privilege." It made me think about how there are a lot of people who might not feel comfortable at a typical show. Basically throughout the rest of the show Elliott and Will's job is to move the actors into position to start each scene, which I think is very interesting because it reversed the usual power of pushing around people. Gender nonconforming people get to control the type of people who have been trying to control them, straight white men. (Roll credits.)

There is a very big escalation of what is at stake for this family. Near the beginning, Jake and Drew break out this old board game that their mom made called "Privilege," which was intended to make them not jerks. That is the lowest the stakes are, because they are just playing a game. But by the end everyone is talking about what makes a terrible person and who in their family abuses their privilege. Basically they are trying to figure out what is wrong with Matt when he bursts into tears at the dinner table and why he is living at home with his dad when he graduated from Harvard and has always been smart and stood up for equal rights. In a normal play with straight white men in it, they just think about themselves as people, not as straight white men, which is a cool difference about this play. There are many plays that are about the experience of being gay, a woman, or a person of color. And there are lots of plays about straight white men but they don't think of themselves as having a straight-white-man experience--they just think of it as the experience. When some people think of a show called Straight White Men written by a woman of color, they might think that it is just going to be really really mean to white men. But it is actually trying to understand them, and I think it does a pretty gosh-darn good job of it by showing a bunch of straight white men trying and sometimes failing to be good people and thinking about how to use their privilege in an effective way for the rest of the world.

I felt like the sweetest moment was after they had gotten into a fight but they decide to make up by having a dance party all together. Matt seems very shy throughout the entire show, but in this scene he busts out some cartwheels and other gymnastics moves and does the worm and it is mindblowing. It is just so sweet to see this family having so much fun together. Another fun family tradition is where Ed buys pjs for his entire family and they have a pj modeling runway, which is hilarious. Basically each of them strikes a hilarious pose, anything from album cover to fashion magazine. I thought it was hilarious and adorable to see the cute family traditions. There is this one moment where Ed spills some chips and Matt had to vacuum them up and he had also just heard everyone there talking crap about him behind his back. The spilling was very convincing; I almost thought something had gone wrong. And Matt just comes out with a vacuum cleaner and does the longest vacuum cleaning ceremony you have ever seen. He's so zoned in on his vacuuming and making everything in that section spotless. Everyone has to put up their feet and they all sit silently. That is comedy gold.

People who would like this show are people who like loud hip hop, privilege board games, and vacuum cleaning ceremonies. I thought this was a really awesome show. I think it had a great story and message. I really loved it.

Photos: Michael Brosilow


JOSLYN said...

This is the best review I have read of the show. Makes me very excited to see it.

Hubcap Henderson said...

Excellent review! Thanks for writing it.