Straight White Men
Riverside Theatre — through Dec. 15
Nota Bene: I had no idea what I was going to see when I arrived at Riverside Theatre on Saturday night to watch Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men. Often, I research a play I haven’t seen prior to attendance and reviewing, but the holiday and other work kept me from my usual preparations.
One word: Wow.
As one is being seated, loud, explicit music by females rappers reverberates throughout the auditorium (sound design: Bri Atwood). As Diviin Huff (Person in Charge) notes in her introduction: If the music made you uncomfortable, that’s what it was meant to do. That’s what it feels like when your needs and comfort are not taken into consideration. The proscenium stage is adorned with traditional columns and cherubs which are in turn decorated with graffiti. It is as if the audience is watching the events of the play unfold inside a diorama — a piece of history captured, but a history that is still being played out.
The People in Charge, Huff and Jaime Nevins, welcome audience members into the venue, introducing themselves and the show as a whole. However, their roles do not stop there. They sit in profile throughout the action, as if monitoring the goings on. And at moments of transition, they take the stage and reset the actors, literally moving them into positions for the next scene. The effect is that these People in Charge, neither of whom is a straight white man, are somehow taking responsibility for the straight white men who are seen as the center of the story.
The play revolves around a family made up of a father and three sons, all straight white men, taught lessons about racism and sexism by the now-deceased matriarch via a Monopoly board turned into a game called “Privilege.” Each member of the family has lived out those lessons in different ways. Jake (Aaron Weiner) understands the premises of racism, sexism and elitism but still opts to participate, because that is how he has gotten ahead in the world. Weiner is outstanding in the role, bringing a knowing charm as well as guilt to life. Weiner embodies what straight white men have been expected to be and do throughout the past decades. Jake is part of the system.
Drew, played by Michael Francis, is a teacher who assuages his guilt by writing, going to therapy and trying to be a healing force for the system and himself. Drew, as portrayed by Francis, is at once pitiable and commendable. Ed, the father (Kevin Burford), is arguably the heart of the family. It is to his home all three sons have returned to participate in traditions, including playing the “Privilege” game.
When Ed fills his sons’ stockings, the audience can’t help but see these adult men still being coddled as boys. Burford creates a concerned father who ultimately wants his sons to realize their potential, but in a sensitive and mindful way — a way that recognizes their privileges of white, straightness and economic advantage, even if he himself cannot make that happen for them.
It is the third son, however — Kevin Michael Moore’s Matt — who moves the reunion forward. At dinner Matt begins crying, and all eyes turn to Moore as he brings Harvard-educated Matt to the forefront of the storyline. Although he claims to be happy with his decision to live at home with his dad and work a simple temp job, his brothers and, eventually, his own father, do not believe him, convinced that something is deeply disturbing him. Moore truly becomes this character — a stark foil to Weiner’s successful Jake and a deep contrast to Francis’ Drew. Moore’s Matt is at once provocative and heart-rending.
Every single element of this show combines not only to tell the story, but to challenge the audience members. Nina Morrison not only understands the script, but developed the cast and artfully directed each scene. The choreography (yes, there is dancing) is humorously constructed by Amy Simonson; the costumes (Emma Tremmel) create the atmosphere as much as the set (S. Benjamin Farrar). Stage management was flawless by Olivia Leslie, Alexis Hinman and Noel VanDenBosch, who, along with the People in Charge execute totally seamless transitions.
In the end, the compelling script with some of the Corridor’s finest actors and technicians will leave you with enough questions and topics of discussion to last the holiday season and beyond. Straight White Men runs through Dec. 15 at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $10-30; contact the box office to purchase.