“I don’t think this is gonna be a good conversation.”
Political debate around the dinner table is inadvisable. At best, it leads to indigestion. At worst, relationships are irreparably damaged.
Sonorous Road Productions’ final mainstage show at its Oberlin Road location (they move to Hillsborough street next month) is the regional premiere of Straight White Men by Korean-American experimental playwright Young Jean Lee.
Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company operated from 2003 to 2016 and produced ten of Lee’s original plays across the globe. Each is decidedly feminist-minded, identity-focused, and avante-garde. Her storytelling approaches have included a self-help seminar (2005’s Pullman, WA), a church service (2007’s Church), a minstrel show (2009’s The Shipment), and a burlesque ballet (2011’s Untitled Feminist Show).
2014’s satirical Straight White Men is notably her most conventional play. “Three brothers spend Christmas Eve back at home with their aging father” does not sound like a Young Jean Lee synopsis. But this work, like many of her others, seeks to destabilize your assumptions–forcing these four men into grueling conversations about race, gender, wealth, and martyrdom.
Her question is simple: how do the privileged react when one of their rank (white, male, heterosexual, Christian, cisgender, educated, upper-middle-class) eschews the system that gave them such power? The play’s answer, spoken sincerely by the traitor in question: “I don’t think this is gonna be a good conversation.”
The 85-minute play is not without humor. Though Lee’s allegory is purposefully heavy-handed, her witty, profanity-laden dialogue and often-goofy characters earn boisterous laughter before things turn south and, as MTV’s The Real World would proclaim “people stop being nice and start getting real.”
The play first questions our preconceptions of “straight.” Mincing about, play-wrestling, and sexual gesturing are part of the homoerotic frat boy ritual and two of our characters engage in such play from the start, before ironically questioning the sexuality of the third brother.
Audience expectations are further subverted as these crass, “white” brothers are revealed to be extremely woke about racial injustice–the play’s key talking point–with their many spoken (and sung) references to police brutality, hindered upward mobility, and the Ku Klux Klan .
The American idea of “men” is put on trial as “Mother” Matt reads “Baby” Drew a bedtime story, Drew opens up about psychotherapy, and the butch Jake displays his flare for tree decoration.
The play’s introductory speech and all scene transitions are controlled by two players, Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2–whose responsibilities and characteristics are spelled out in painstaking detail in Lee’s script. Watching two gender non-conforming actors of color control the bodies of white men is a powerful image indeed. Actors Glenn Greggs and Sara Leone provide the charm, androgyny, and intelligence required of these hosts, but their whiteness may have dulled one of the play’s sharpest edges.
The challenge for the four leading actors is one of balance. That challenge is met most fully by Brian Thacker, with his exquisitely restrained but frank performance as the downtrodden Matt. He provides a necessary counterbalance to the bullying but encouraging Jake, played with authority by Sean Wellington.
The winsome Nick Popio ably blends liveliness with melancholy as Drew while the dependable Simon Kaplan steadily unmasks affable dad Ed to reveal the disgusted father lurking beneath.
Director egla Birmingham Hassan’s energetic sitcom staging ensures that we never expect the severity of the impending conflict. She keeps her cast on their feet, preventing stagnation during talkier scenes.
Vivian Cheng’s set is down-to-earth and sufficiently detailed, while Anthony Buckner smartly uses an overhead lamp to help offset some of Sonorous Road’s harsh LED lights (the lack of smooth dimmability continues to prove distracting). Props master Lauren Monsanto pulls off the harrowing task of incorporating practical food. On opening night, two actors fell quite violently after slipping on some spilled prop liquor, but their castmates were on hand to help play it off.
The power of Lee’s incisive script is fortified by Hassan’s brisk direction and a cohesive cast, making Straight White Men a fitting tribute to Sonorous Road Productions’ tenure on Oberlin Road.
SECOND OPINION: Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article149702969.html; and Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/straight-white-men/Event?oid=6208067
Sonorous Road Productions presents STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at 8 p.m. May 12-13, 19-20, 22 (Industry Night), 25-27 and 3 p.m. May 14, 21, and 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.
Straight White Men (2014 play): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straight_White_Men
Young Jean Lee (playwright): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Jean_Lee and http://youngjeanlee.org/
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local actor and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.