Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men is currently sold out. Those who were hoping to see a version of the show before it blows up on Broadway this summer might find comfort in knowing that the acting, with the exception of one performance, is mediocre.
Though great acting is always necessary to fully realize a play, it's particularly necessary in SWM. In order for Lee's ending to land, the audience needs to believe that the three brothers at the core of the drama really love each other, that every fratty gesture—every purple nurple, every put-down, every randomly recalled embarrassing story—is just another word for "I love you, brother, with all my heart."
The only convincing actor onstage was Frank Boyd, who played Matt, the magnetically unattractive central character whose acceptance of his low station in life causes his family to reject him.
Matt was also, weirdly, the central character in a small but fascinating drama that happened in the show's program, of all places.
Before I show you the differences between the director's note that appeared in the program on opening night and the one that appeared in the program on Sunday, you're going to want a little more context about the play.
When you walk into the playhouse, you don't see any straight white men onstage at all. You hear loud, sexually explicit, and totally awesome female-driven rap music bumping from the speakers.
You see two people of color—Nina-Williams-Teramachi and Nicholas Japaul Bernard—looking fabulous in a tan jumpsuit and a black velvet spaghetti-strap jumper with a huge white fur slung over the shoulder, respectively.
In the script, Lee calls these people Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, and they serve to frame the story. They welcome the audience, explain why the music was so loud, and perform a scripted, delightfully antagonistic (if a little overdetermined [for WET's crowd, anyway]) explainer about calling people by their preferred pronouns.
They beckon the actors, arrange them the way they like in Jennifer Zeyl's perfect recreation of a suburban finished basement, take their own seats in the audience, and clap when they want the show to begin. Throughout the rest of the show they watch from their seats and figure meaningfully during transitions between acts, clearly suggesting that this drama be seen through the lens of non-straight-white-men.
In combination with the provocative title, this opener makes you think the straight white guys in the play—three brothers and their widower father—are about to be righteously satirized for 90 minutes. But that's not really what happens.
What unfolds is a pretty straightforward drama about a family—conspicuously aware of the many privileges granted to them by their race, sexuality, and gender—trying to figure out what to do with Matt, a guy who is "not winning in a capitalist model," as Lee put it in an interview with The Stranger last week.
After years of unhappily working in academia and at various nonprofits, Matt has finally found a sense of personal satisfaction in his current role, which is simply making copies at a temp job and caring for his aging father. But his family can't accept that fact.
As I wrote in my introduction to the interview with Lee, the thing the family does to Matt in order to resolve their issue with him is thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and kind of shocking considering all the slapstick humor that precedes it.
I felt bad for Matt when I first read the play in anticipation of interviewing Lee, and I felt bad for Matt after seeing the show Sunday. What happens to him is sad! And look at that face up there! He looks so sad! Warped by the ideals of Capitalism, his family did what they thought was "best for him," and it's horrible!
But director Sara Porkalob, an artist and activist who's always looking for ways to fruitfully combine those two pursuits, didn't want me or anyone else to rest too easily in the sadness.
Considering WET's younger, relatively more diverse (for Seattle) audience, director Porkalob says she wanted to "start the conversation" about the play "in a different place." She wanted people to analyze themselves as they were watching the play, wanted them to really consider how bad they should feel for a white guy who will, were his life to continue after the end of the show, presumably still enjoy the advantages of whiteness, straightness, and maleness even though he finds himself in a rough spot when the curtain falls.
And so she wrote the following Director's Note, which appeared in the program on opening night:
Porkalob says Lee somehow saw this program note and in an e-mail asked her to remove the language directing people not to feel bad for Matt. Lee thought Porkalob's note directed the audience to think only one way about the show, which she found excessively limiting. Nevertheless, she was willing to discuss the matter with Porkalob and so opened up a dialogue on the subject.
In reply, Porkalob explained her reasoning. "I deliberately wrote that line to be directive and as part of the performance of the play, assuming that for some people (specifically older white people) it would be incendiary and for others (young people of color) it would be another way—like the pre-show speech—to help them feel welcome," she wrote.
"Essentially, my director's note was part of the performance curation and a way to challenge and invite WET's specific audience demographic to engage with the material," she concluded.
According to Porkalob, Lee said she'd still rather see the language changed, but added that she wouldn't press the issue. After some reflection, Porkalob decided to swap the sentence for this new one, which is the one I saw in my playbill on Sunday:
Porkalob told me she changed the line for several reasons.
As a playwright, she says, she completely understands and values Lee's ideals and intentions and wanted to prioritize them. She also feels as if all the other written material in the show—from the lobby displays to her own reputation—accomplishes what she was trying to accomplish in that line anyway.
And she was also touched by the sheer fact of having an open dialogue with Lee, an artistic hero of hers, and felt good about Lee having really heard her out on the subject. Given all that, she thought it was more important to work toward a solution that both artists could be happy about. So she took the hit to her ego and changed the line to express a sentiment she says she's equally invested in, one that came from an honest and true place. "Everyone: Thank you for being here."
Though WET's production of Straight White Men is sold out, there is a waitlist at the door for every performance. The box office opens at 6:30 p.m., and that's when they start taking names for the list. Even though the acting in the performance I saw was largely bad, it's also possible that everyone except Boyd was having an off night. If you can get lucky, Lee's play is well worth your time.