Can a straight white man be woke? In ‘Straight White Men,’ the answer is — maybe

straightwhitemen2_kevin-berne-courtesy
Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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“Straight White Men,” now playing at Marin Theatre Company, begins with Cardi B.

Upon entering the theater auditorium, audience members encounter two actors already dancing through the aisles — Person-in-charge (J) and Person-in-charge 2 (Arianna Evans) bop throughout the audience to “Bodak Yellow,” which booms through the theater speakers.

The music selection is not only fun but also intentional  — as Person-in-charge explains, it denotes the production’s self-aware deviation from entertainment norms and the people to whom such norms generally cater. This particular soundtrack caters to the comfort of those who get down to hip-hop, those who like to groove — an audience that isn’t homogeneously white and male is implied.

Yet Person-in-charge assures audience members more comfortable with “traditional” theater conventions that they need not fret: “From here on out,” they grin before sauntering away from the stage, “everything will proceed as one might expect. All of the characters are straight, white men.”

Indeed, they are. Written by Young Jean Lee as a “straight, white male identity politics play,” “Straight White Men” follows Ed (James Carpenter) and his three adult sons — Jake (Seann Gallagher), Drew (Christian Haines) and Matt (Ryan Tasker) — during a Christmas gathering. Over the course of a few days, the family members enjoy each other’s company, often engaging in playful banter and joshing around. On this level, the play includes its fair share of successful, though juvenile, humor.

At the same time, over the course of the family reunion, the four men must grapple with their own privilege and what it means to exist in a fundamentally biased and unjust society as part of the privileged demographic. As detailed by Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, the play fits in with the theater’s current season, which considers “the very topical subject of white male privilege.”

“Straight White Men” proves an apt selection. Lee faces questions of white male privilege head-on throughout her script, which addresses the recent labeling of straight white men as such, a deviation from many years of their occupying the space of the assumed demographic — previously, any other identities required specification.

The awkwardness and discomfort of coming to terms with such a label and all its implications read clearly in the company’s production, with an astute cast and crew bringing Lee’s writing to life. Despite the intricacies of their roles, Carpenter, Gallagher, Haines and Tasker convey their respective characters with an air of genuinity and effortlessness — their performances feel wholly natural.

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

Notably, though the four central characters are straight, white men, they are the only people of this demographic within the production. Women and gender nonconforming individuals compose the entire creative team, and the fact that white, straight men do not run this production remains visible throughout most of the show. Actualizing a powerful metaphor about “unseen labor” by women and people of color, J and Evans, neither of whom are straight, white men, at times take center stage as both cast and crew.

Throughout the performance, the duo appears as “People-in-charge,” positioning actors, shifting props during scene changes and observing the performance from the side of the stage — all in plain view of the audience. J occupies this role especially well. As a transgender person and an asylum refugee from India, J is excluded from the demographic privileges of the four characters occupying center stage, yet J moves onstage with an air of confidence and self-assertion that acknowledges the right of Person-in-charge to visibly take up space.  

Spoiler alert: The play doesn’t ultimately answer what it means to be a straight, white male in the contemporary day, nor does it outline the social obligations of such individuals. But it would be hard to take the show seriously if it attempted to provide a thorough solution to either of these issues in an hour and a half.

“Straight White Men” excels in the gray spaces it occupies, both as a script and as performed at Marin Theatre Company. “Wokeness,” Lee seems to tell us, has many levels and complexities — as an audience, we may not have all of the answers, but it’s imperative that we continue asking these questions.  

“Straight White Men” will run through July 15 at Marin Theatre Company.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.