Young Jean Lee shakes up Broadway with Straight White Men

Envelope-pushing playwright Young Jean Lee skewers straight-white-male ambition in her Broadway debut
Young Jean Lee
Photograph: Blaine Davis
By Helen Shaw |
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What in the sweet, smoking hell is Young Jean Lee doing on Broadway? Lee is the downtown avant-gardist who wrote a riff on King Lear that had a cameo by Big Bird. She is the bomb-throwing ex-academic whose feminist manifesto featured performers dancing nude. She is the Korean-American playwright so sick of identity plays, she wrote one just to stake the vampire in its heart.

“It’s weird, right?” says Lee, laughing about having her play performed across the street from Hello, Dolly! Having spent her career whacking sacred cows, Lee may actually have found a way to spank the Great White Way itself with her latest subversive work. Originally mounted Off Broadway at the Public Theater in 2014 (pictured below) and then at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Lee’s comic drama Straight White Men will open at Second Stage’s recently acquired Helen Hayes Theater in July, with a cast that includes Call Me by Your Names Armie Hammer. It’s a conventional family story about a dad with grown sons; there’s lots of good-natured roughhousing. Is Lee tricking us? Where’s the transgression in that?

Photograph: Blaine Davis

“I basically do site-specific work for whatever audience I’m working with,” Lee says, “And so, since I was doing a play at the Public in 2014…” She trails off. Indeed, that’s the land of the straight-white-subscription audience right there. Lee evades the question of whether or not she’s deliberately goading that audience. In some ways, she’s considering their own comfort. (“Why put up a show everyone hates?”) But her work, even in her current anthropological realism mode, always has a stinging quality. Lee gets a charge out of the conversations she’s overheard people have after the play. “One thing I’d hear a lot was ‘Why would the playwright do this to us?’ It was as though something horrible had been done to them.”

What Lee has done was attack another holy of holies: straight-white-male ambition. Matt, the protagonist, has come to terms with his privilege by becoming a kind of mindful refusenik. The expectation on him is so overblown that his very active choice is complete inactivity. “And, really,” says Lee, “Matt is me. If I woke up tomorrow as a single white male, I would have a crisis. As a Korean-American female, all I have to do is try to succeed and I’m a hero of diversity! But if I wake up as Matt, I don’t get points for being successful as a capitalist.”

Second Stage’s first Broadway season has turned into a provocative conversation. In the spring, Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero posed questions about whiteness and maleness, and now the next play—the very first Broadway outing by an Asian American female playwright—will try to answer them. The first step seems to be in stepping back and looking at SWMs with a clinical eye. In text-generating workshops, Lee found that her subjects were more exotic than she’d imagined. “There’s this thing that straight guys have to do to prove they’re not gay,” Lee continues. “Little negotiations of ‘Am I going to hug you?’ ” You can sense her delight over the phone. She loves the absurdity of it all, the idea that these dudes who are always in the spotlight still have some secrets left. It’s the sort of train of thought that has gone unexamined for too long—and that’s why Young Jean Lee’s on Broadway.

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