Young Jean Lee may be believed to be the first Asian-American woman to write a play scheduled to be produced on Broadway, but she wants to take her audience into the mind of straight white men.
Lee’s play, “Straight White Men,” explores the themes of identity, privilege and American values, she said. Known for writing plays that focus on identity from various points of view, Lee said she wanted to explore the notion of how the titular group now has a label attached to it.
“I noticed a societal shift where straight white men used to be just the default human and now they have an identity category,” Lee said. “They’re reacting to it in the way everybody reacts to it when that happens to them. Nobody likes it, but they’re experiencing it for the first time.”
The play, which is scheduled to make its Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theater on July 23, had previous runs at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and the Marin Theatre Company in California in 2014.
It takes place on Christmas Eve and focuses on three brothers (Armie Hammer, Josh Charles, and Paul Schneider) and their father (Stephen Payne), who are gathered together to celebrate and are forced to confront their own identities when a question they can’t answer interrupts their holiday cheer.
Lee began developing “Straight White Men” in 2012 while part of SPACE on Ryder Farm, a creative residency program in New York. To get into the minds of straight white men, she conducted interviews and held improvisation classes with actors she knew who fit the bill, she said.
“I’m a woman of color, and I’ve never been around straight white men when they’re just around each other so that was something I wanted to have improvised to see what those interactions were like,” Lee said.
She added that she also conducted interviews with siblings to get a closer look at those relationships because she is an only child.
Lee first workshopped the play with a diverse group and asked them to write a list of expectations they had of straight white men, she said. When she created a character based on their answers, the group ended up hating him.
“They thought he was a loser, which made them realize they had all these values that were rooted in capitalistic success,” Lee said. “I think that’s one of the biggest themes here. One is the representation in a capitalistic framework and this idea of identity politics.”
Lee added that she felt that she learned a lot about herself while developing the play and was surprised to discover that she she shared some privileges with straight white men as an Asian-American women.
“I’m not likely to get arrested just driving around in a car or people don’t assume that I’m going to steal things,” Lee said. “People are going to assume that I’m good at science and math. There are certain positive attributes that get assigned to an Asian woman that a straight white man also receives.”
Lee said she didn’t want to make straight white men the victims when she wrote the play, but wanted the audience to keep an open mind when approaching the topics of privilege and identity.
I’m a woman of color, and I’ve never been around straight white men when they’re just around each other so that was something I wanted to have improvised to see what those interactions were like.
She noted that many people are focusing on the fact that she is the first Asian-American woman to write a play for Broadway in the lead up to the premiere, but with this play, she wants people to look beyond just identities.
“Basically, right now, everyone is making a big deal about the fact that I’m the first Asian female on Broadway as if I did this thing that was virtuous,” Lee said. “If I was a straight white man, I wouldn’t get the same diversity points for that. I haven’t done anything that much differently than what a straight what man would do. I’m just trying to get my work produced.”
CORRECTION (July 17, 2018, 3:10 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified the actor portraying the father in "Straight White Men." He is Stephen Payne, not Denis Arndt.