Ben @ 'Straight White Men' - Like you’re looking at a caricature of yourself

What's It about?

A family of four - a father and his three sons - deal with long-simmering issues between them over the Christmas holiday.

My experience (a straight white man). 

I imagine this is what it feels like to be written by someone who almost understands you, but it ends up feeling like you’re looking at a caricature of yourself. Each character embodied some stereotype of the white guy: Pull-Yourself-Up-By-the-Bootstraps Dad, the Banker Bro, the Sensitive Boi, and the Man Without an Identity. The problems identified and explored are ones exclusive to those who are born with great fortune - both monetary and in terms of class.

The men in this show were not poor, had by all accounts a stable family home, and went to good schools. Each one has taken one of the three routes that you can when you’re born with that level of privilege. Jake embraces it. He utilized his tools and leveraged them to reach VP status at a powerful bank. Drew hedges. He also leveraged his opportunities to reach a lofty career, but unlike Jake he is introspective about how he got to where he is, and his career is more about “giving back”. Matt has chosen the route of apathy. He was born with privilege, but he did not take advantage of it. And the father is eerily familiar, the older man who thinks he worked for what he got, never questioning the system. In his day, as he says in the play, he “never thought there was another way to live.”

I felt what most of the characters seemed to be grappling with throughout the show: confusion. I saw that most of these men wrestled with an uncertainty about their place in the world. It’s a question that, for most of U.S. history, the white guy didn’t have to concern himself with. He just was a person, making his way in the world. I certainly went through my own iteration of this experience - growing up, I certainly did not think of myself as “white”, nor did I think of my friends as anything more than just my friends. Watching these characters wrestling with these kinds of questions resonated. Do you have a responsibility to make the best of the good fortune you have been given? Or is taking advantage of a prejudiced system to better yourself inherently wrong? And if it is, how do you exist in that system in a way where you can advance in your life and career without holding other people back?

I did not find as much solace in the show’s simplistic representation of family life. This might be because I do not have any brothers, and that I mostly grew up with my mother and sister. Despite the show being called Straight White Men, I think women’s roles in shaping the men of America deserved more recognition. Women got a passing mention in a few of the scenes, and their mother’s advice was alluded to a couple of times. I would love to see some kind of sequel or spin-off where the women behind these men got their moment in the spotlight. While it’s important to remember the issues that plague regular white dudes, watching them in a vacuum left the show feeling, to me, a bit hollow and needing something more.

Shannon's experience (Ben’s fiancé).

I may have been one of the few people who truly enjoyed the pre-show, with music by Missy Elliot and a one-on-one interaction with Ty Defoe. In retrospect, I wonder if he chose to talk to me because I was the only person of color in the first few rows of our section. When Ty and Kate Bornstein took the stage to congratulate people who enjoyed the music on their moment of privilege, I laughed but also realized that I had been the only one in my section jamming to “Get Ur Freak On.” Aside from that brief moment at the beginning, I found it hard to really connect with the show.

It is hard to have empathy for people who were given everything. As Matt’s brothers and father searched for an answer to what was ailing him, as far as I was concerned, the issue was quite plain - he just lacked the willpower to want more for himself because he had never had to really work for anything. I observed that Matt hadn’t just coasted on his white privilege - he had in fact volunteered in Ghana and studied hard in school. However, through the wealthiest and most privileged brother, it is made clear that Matt (as well as the rest of them) had the privilege to do that without ever having to worry about things like getting shot or wondering if they’d have food for dinner. While it’s great that both those things were brought to the stage, it made it all the more difficult to care about Matt’s situation. For me in particular, there was no way to empathize with Matt because I never had the stepping stones he had to even achieve the mediocre success he obtained. What everyone considered “not reaching his potential” is considered excelling for someone of my background. A bachelor’s degree, a PhD, international travel - those aren’t mediocre standards for many.

However, where I think the show truly succeeded was in capturing the spirit of family. From the silly nicknames to revisiting embarrassingly funny stories, it was easy to believe these four men were a family. As I watched them bicker over decorating a Christmas tree, I remembered how often I did that with my cousins. When the brothers purposefully sang annoying songs to each other and hogged the chairs, I couldn’t help but laugh at the familiarity of sibling petulance.


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