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Sonorous Road Ends Its Oberlin Road Tenure with Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Note: This script fits perfectly into Sonorous Road Productions’ mission of offering engaging, thought-provoking theater.

Merry Christmas! And welcome to Ed’s place! Ed is a widower, Matt (his oldest adult son) has moved back in with him, and Matt’s two brothers (Jake and Drew) have come to visit. They’ll be having a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese takeout; they’ll share a ritual apple pie; they’ll change into “Christmas pajamas”; one member of the family will wear a Santa suit; and they’ll engage in a plethora of father-son and brother-brother activities, some holiday-specific, others not. Furthermore, they’ll play a variation of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly called “Privilege.” Indeed, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men opens a window that gives a multiple-perspective examination of the privilege enjoyed in Western culture by men who, like these four, are straight and white.

But these four are not the first that we met when the house opened. With preshow music playing (way too loud, quite distorted, and very edgy — on purpose), we were greeted by Glenn Greggs (“Person in Charge 1”) and Sara Leone (“Person in Charge 2”), and neither of these characters fit the description of “straight white men.” We were welcomed by both, and we were offered earplugs (in case we found the music too loud — or too offensive). When house lights went down, the pair gave an introduction to the play, introducing the issues that were about to be addressed (and ending with a justification for the choices made concerning music). Then the stage lights went down and the pair “set the stage” by physically placing two of the actors (as though they were set pieces rather than characters) on the set. Lights up, and the scene began. This technique was repeated each time there was a scene change, thereby giving the interesting (as well as entertaining) impression that this pair of non-straight-white-men had decided what parts of the lives of these men would be incorporated into the story that the evening’s show would tell. Greggs and Leone performed their function perfectly.

Director egla Birmingham Hassan has set a smooth and appropriately brisk pace for this script. There is a lot of carefully choreographed physicality and some well-timed “duets.” We meet the characters and enjoy their animated (and at times boisterous) interactions, and we are steadily drawn into their world.

These straight white men have tried their utmost to be fair-minded and inclusive. They give lip-service to the concept of a “level playing field,” and they have done their best in the past to stick up for the less fortunate. But they all know, as we eventually hear it voiced, that “There is nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence.”

Matt is definitely the most affected by this; Drew is obsessed with the idea of helping Matt deal with it; and the others join in the discussion. Indeed, the second half of the play could be accurately subtitled “What can we do about Matt?”

Simon Kaplan’s Ed is a very likeable fatherly type. There is no doubt about this character’s love for his sons and for the memory of deceased wife. He revels in the family’s holiday traditions, and he is determined to see that they are all kept. Kaplan delivers a fully nuanced performance, expertly navigating the changes that we see when possible solutions to Matt’s “problem” are discussed. For the sake of delight, pay close attention to the details when Ed stuffs his sons’ Christmas stockings.

Nick Popio gives a very even, animated performance as Drew, the youngest of the brothers. Drew is a successful writer and a college professor. When confronted with life-issues in the past, Drew turned to therapy and feels that it was his salvation. He is insistent that Matt consider the going same route. Popio delivers with aplomb in a variety of situations. These include the character’s impish attempts to distract his brother Jake from an Xbox game, his seeking of the cause of Matt’s “problem,” and his fervent insistence that they find a solution. A delightful moment: his “morning-after” segment — it’s nearly worth the price of admission.

As Jake, Sean Wellington captures the essence of being the “middle child.” We soon learn that Jake is a successful banker who is recently divorced. Pay attention — a near-throw-away line informs us that his ex-wife is black, so he must be a truly color-blind individual, right? Maybe not. At one point, Jake announces: “I’m an asshole.” He admits that he follows the “rules” dictated by the straight white men’s business club, “rules” which preclude promotions for women and minorities. Business demands it. This trio of brothers performs some interesting song-and-dance numbers, and Wellington seems to be channeling M.C. Hammer in one routine. (Kudos to the uncredited costume designer for the design of the pants for the Santa suit.)

Brian Thacker plays Matt. This oldest son had the privilege of a Harvard University education, and he has the student-loan debt to prove it. What his father and brothers find problematic is this: he has not followed the high-octane career options that society seems to expect from those in his position. Is he wasting his potential? If so, why has he chosen to do so? Is he simply, as Jake asserts, unable to sell himself? Does he need the therapy that Drew has prescribed? Should he accept the solutions that his father offers?,/p>:

There is true magic in Thacker’s portrayal of Matt. Each situation, each action, each reaction (and each lack thereof) is totally in-character. As the action unfolds, we can see that every bit of what is revealed about this character was always there, just under the surface. Matt claims to be happy; and we are sure that, on some level, he is. But there is a demon haunting him — on the inside he just might be hearing himself ask the same questions posed by the others:

“Why haven’t you done anything meaningful?”

“Are you a loser for no reason?”

“Are you trying to make the world better by sacrificing yourself?”

It is worth noting that all four of these characters were so interesting and so engaging that we found ourselves at times glancing back-and-forth, away from the focus of the scene in order to gauge everyone’s reactions to what was being said and done.

Set designer Vivian Cheng gives us a perfect living room for a family of this description. The details are impressive, right down to the word “Peace” on the wall above the Christmas stockings. Was that detail intended to mockingly insinuate that there will never be any true peace in the world of the play?

Props master Lauren Monsanto gives us everything needed, including a brand-new apple pie, and we assume that there will be another one needed for each performance.

The Department of Picky-Picky was impressed by the fact that one member of the family uses a fork instead of chopsticks. Was this a choice made by the director? The actor? The playwright?

And we must pick one “nit”: While neither of the Person in Charge characters were straight men, both actors were white. Was this a conscious choice? Was it intended to suggest that even casting privilege favors Caucasians?

Straight White Men has eight more performances at Sonorous Road Theatre, including an “Industry Night” (Monday night) performance on May 22nd that is intended to make sure that other active theater people (casts and crews alike) are all able to attend.

The final performance will be on Sunday, May 28th, at 3 p.m.; and this will be Sonorous Road’s final performance in their 209 Oberlin Rd. location. When they strike this show, the company will be striking its entire operation and moving to its new location at 3801 Hillsborough St, Suite 113 (in The Royal Bakery Building).

In case it is not obvious, we heartily recommend this show!

From the Egg Head Department: The subject of a character dealing with undeserved privilege is not new. George Bernard Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses (1895) gave us Harry Trench. Trench’s adversary mocks him with the line: “If, when you say you are just as bad as I am, you mean that you are just as powerless to alter the state of society, then you are unfortunately quite right.”

William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses! (1942) gave us Ike McCaslin who gives up his patrimony. Both men were horrified when they confronted the implications and felt the resultant guilt inherent in knowing that the success of their own comfortable lifestyles depended on the exploitation of others. More recently, Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1975) poignantly addressed the issue in a thoroughly grotesque science-fiction setting.

Young Jean Lee’s play, however, definitely adds valuable insights and new perspectives to the conversation. More importantly, Straight White Men makes sure that the conversation continues.

<em>Straight White Men</em> stars (from left) Brian Thacker, Nick Popio, Sean Wellington, and Simon Kaplan

Straight White Men stars (from left) Brian Thacker, Nick Popio, Sean Wellington, and Simon Kaplan

SECOND OPINION: May 10th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/straight-white-men/Event?oid=6208067. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 13th Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/05/sonorous-road-examines-the-privilege-of-straight-white-men/.)

Sonorous Road Productions presents STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at 8 p.m. May 19 and 20, 3 p.m. May 21, 8 p.m. May 22 (Industry Night), 8 p.m. May 25-27, and 3 p.m. May 28 at Sonorous Road Theatre, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.

TICKETS: $18 ($15 students and seniors).

BOX OFFICE: 919-803-3798 or https://sonorousroadtheatre.com/get-tickets.

SHOW: https://sonorousroadtheatre.com/straight-white-men and https://www.facebook.com/events/645485698974896/.

PRESENTER https://www.sonorousroad.com/, https://www.facebook.com/sonorousroad/, and https://twitter.com/sonorousroad.

VENUE: https://www.sonorousroadtheatre.com/.

DIRECTIONS/MAP: https://www.sonorousroadtheatre.com/location-hours.

OTHER LINKS:

Straight White Men (2014 Columbus, OH and 2014 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5483 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://youngjeanlee.org/work/straight-white-men/ (Young Jean Lee’s web page), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5913 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straight_White_Men (Wikipedia).

Young Jean Lee (Korean-American experimental playwright): http://youngjeanlee.org/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/43055 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Jean_Lee (Wikipedia).

egla Birmingham Hassan (director): https://www.facebook.com/egla.hassan (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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