Sarah Giles in rehearsal for Straight White Men

From the Reading Room l Stout-hearted men

The play is called Straight White Men, so there’s definitely nothing misleading in the title. In it, audiences will witness the Christmas gathering of a family of Caucasian men, a father and three sons, who all happen to be heterosexual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee hit upon the generic title in an early workshop when someone pointed out that many plays nowadays might as well be called Straight White Men.

That’s a point not lost on the director of the play, Sarah Giles. Asked if there was any particular advantage for a woman to be directing this play about white male privilege, an outsider’s perspective perhaps, she answered that this assignment wasn’t much different to most. ‘Most of the plays I’ve directed have had more male than female cast members, and so often the roles are bigger for men. That’s true even with recent plays. As a female director you’re always directing men.’

Giles is excited to direct the Australian premiere of this intriguing play by an up-and-coming US playwright. In recent years, Young Jean Lee has been an energising disrupter on the New York theatre scene. (The T-shirts for her theatre company say, ‘Destroy the audience.’) Her recurring donnée is identity politics, though she strives never to be self-righteous about it, and most of her plays are rigorous self-examinations of her own attitudes and prejudices. Having created works about all types of racial and sexual identities over the years, Lee realised that one social group she was avoiding was the dominant one: white, heterosexual men. Since she has made it her practice always to write the play she least wants to write, she set to it.

For research, Lee discussed white male privilege with groups and individuals and discovered a richness of hidden attitudes and unspoken biases. Sarah Giles has discovered the same in rehearsals. ‘Normally, I like to get the actors up on their feet on the first day,’ she says. ‘But for this, we’ve stayed round the table talking. Because as white people we’ve never needed to think about these things, about our privilege which we automatically have. The play is about how can you be a male and white and make a difference in the world when whatever you achieve is expected of you anyway.’

This will be Sarah Giles’s first directing assignment at MTC, though she was Directorial Attachment to the production of The History Boys in 2007. She subsequently studied at NIDA and her credit list includes productions for Sydney Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Griffin Theatre and Sydney Chamber Opera.

Since in Lee’s work the form always follows the content, Straight White Men had to be a naturalistic, ‘family gathering play’, a dominant mode for mainstream American theatre, its theatrical bedrock. Entering the Fairfax Studio, the audience will be presented with designer Eugyeene Teh’s detailed rendering of a suburban basement rumpus room where the three sons and their father hang out over Christmas. A naturalistic set usually spells safety for a theatre audience; it tells you that things are not going to get too weird. But Lee wants to disrupt that. Around the comforting naturalism she has placed an alienating frame. The stage directions call for loud hip-hop to be played before the show. This comes from the original production at the Public Theatre when Lee was worried that the naturalistic setting and the plush theatre might be off-putting for her usual audience from the experimental theatre scene.

‘The pre-show music was meant to put them at ease,’ Giles explains. ‘But all she got were these angry complaints from white people about the music, that they felt assaulted by it. And Lee realised how much the largely white audience thought the theatre was their space and felt entitled to complain.’

‘So you have the familiar trope of the family play, all the family members coming home with their troubles, and it could easily be performed straight as if it were an ordinary night at the theatre. But it has this aspect with the music and the figure of the stagehand, played by Candy [Bowers], that hopefully makes you view it differently.’

So then, is the play ultimately a satire on white male privilege?

‘Is it a satire? You know at this stage of rehearsals, we don’t know how we’re going to finally pitch it: how naturalistic or ironic it needs to be. The challenge is finding the best place for it to sit, which is what we are looking for now.’

Straight White Men plays at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio from 6 May. Learn more

Published on 25 April 2016