I was fortunate enough to snag a ticket to see Sara Porkalob’s brilliant production of Young Jean Lee’s  “Straight White Men” at Washington Ensemble Theatre last night. (It was just extended but it keeps selling out, so consider yourself lucky if you can get tickets.)

The show is a living room drama that centers Ed (David S. Klein) and his three grown sons, Matt (Frank Boyd), Jake (Andy Buffalen), and Drew (Sam Turner); all straight white men. The narrative is curated by two “people in charge,” both visibly queer people of color, played by Nina Williams-Teramachi and Nicholas Japaul Bernard.

After his mother’s death, Matt – who has a B.A. from Harvard and a graduate degree from Stanford and has done a decade of work at a broad variety of NGOs – comes home to cook and clean for his father and work an entry level clerical job at a local nonprofit.

His father and “alpha male” brothers are confused about his sudden loss of ambition. Drew is convinced he’s in need of therapy. Jake believes he’s being noble by stepping back from leadership to allow people with less privilege a chance to be at the center. Ed assumes he’s simply come home to pay off his student loans, and is intent on handing him a check so he can go out and fulfill his destiny as a great man.

As it turns out, Matt’s reason for not fully leveraging his education and experience is that he doesn’t feel like he was ever truly useful in any of the work he was doing. It felt like all he was doing was making things worse because didn’t have the answers.

Everything about this situation sets us up to like and respect Matt. His choice comes across as the product of laudable self-awareness and humility, and Frank Boyd does such a great job of discovering and revealing Matt’s humanity that he invites our empathy.

But there’s something really wrong with bowing out of using the considerable investment that’s been placed in your education because you’ve discovered you don’t have all the answers and you’ve messed some things up.

Fucking up is a natural part of being human, but Matt has decided that he’s going to pack up his toys and go home because he can’t be a perfect hero. This is the ultimate trap of whiteness; to be able to withdraw from the struggle for justice because you can’t tolerate the shame and ickyness you feel when faced with moral ambiguity and your own flaws.

If you are a person with privilege and you engage in the necessary work of dismantling it, you will have to be vulnerable and it will sometimes suck. You’re going to be self-conscious and unsure of where to put your hands. You’re going to feel profoundly ashamed when you discover new things about your privilege.

At some point, you’re going to say something ignorant and be called on it. People are going to be angry at you. You will lose privileged friends because you called them on their privilege. You will lose marginalized friends because you did or said something they cannot forgive.

We’ve already established that narcissism is the desire to remain perfectly invulnerable, and that narcissism is one of the prerequisites for a fascist society. What might appear to be Matt’s self-awareness is really the kind of inexcusable self-absorption that leads to being a passive bystander in a world that needs more participants.

The real mind fuck of the show for me was how attracted I found myself to Matt. I’ve historically had a penchant for finding the birds with the broken wings and trying to make them whole again, and I caught myself positively longing to be his manic pixie dream girl. And here is yet another product of constantly centering straight white men in our narratives for hundreds of years: the brooding protagonist is always supposed to get the girl.

Emotional Labor

Writing songs, speeches, and essays, researching and synthesizing information, and organizing and performing at protests are all emotional labor. Please consider making a contribution to my work.


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