In July 2018, the New York playwright Young Jean Lee  made theater history as the first Asian-American woman to see her work produced on Broadway, with Straight White Men. From the title alone, the play became a lightning rod for discussion—a phenomenon only amplified by word of pre-show antics and a surprisingly compassionate take on what could have been a skewering. With the controversial but acclaimed show currently on the main stage at Florida Studio Theatre, SRQ sat down with the playwright to talk character, process, angry audiences and, of course, straight white men.

What came first, the title or the story?  Young Jean Lee  The title. Although there was a lot of debate around the title, because some people thought that it made the play feel more in your face than it is, that I should call it Home For Christmas or something like that. Others felt that it was crucial as a framing device to put identity front and center with the play.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORIDA STUDIO THEATRE.

At what point did you realize that this angle of identity was something that you wanted to explore?  I start all of my plays by asking myself, ‘What’s the last play in the world that I would ever want to write?’ Then I force myself to write that play. The idea of doing an identity politics play about straight white men sounded really hard and not like something I would ever do, so that immediately became the perfect project.

How did you get into the mind of a straight white man? It was built out of interviews with the cast and with straight white men across the country. I did lots of phone interviews, but the big challenge was that I’m not only a woman of color but I’m also an only child.

How did that factor in?  I just didn’t believe that middle-aged men could behave so childishly together. It took me forever, but after hearing story after story after story, there were men in their 80s still behaving that way when they got together with their brothers. Obviously, straight white men aren’t a monolith. But there are certain things that many people from an identity group share.

Like what? Methods of communication. A lot of straight white men, and probably men in general, do a lot of non-verbal communication, much more than women. It was like a new vocabulary I had to learn. Also, that affection and respect can be expressed through insult.

Creating characters, how do you ride that line between relatable and monolith?  The key, always, to characterization and storytelling, to make it universal, is to make it as specific as possible. By talking to so many people, I gathered so many very specific details about people’s lives and I just put a bunch of them in. In the end, Ed asks Matt, “I wonder what your mother would say if she were here,” and Matt gives this speech. The content of the speech is actually something that a woman whom I’d interviewed said.

The pre-show music created some controversy. What’s the story there?   The hip hop music at the beginning was never intended to be alienating. I was doing the show at the Public Theater, and the audience there tends to be older and whiter than my normal audience and I didn’t want younger people of color to come to the show and feel like they were out of place. So I just played this hip hop music so that they would be like, ‘Oh, okay, we belong here because they’re playing our music.’ To my shock, the audiences went bananas and were so angry. People were screaming at the stage. 

They were angry?   There were people trying to start protests in the lobby. People were canceling their subscriptions. People would shout in rage because they were so angry about the music. And it was funny, because young people of color heard about all the controversy, so they came to the show, excited to see what the scandalous thing was, and were like, ‘What’s going on? You’re not even playing music loudly.’ Somebody actually came up to me and said, ‘You sold out. You turned the music down.’ And I said, ‘No, buddy, this is what they’re freaking out about.’

As a playwright, when that happens, are you ecstatic? Concerned?  I’m concerned. My intention is never to traumatize the audience. I don’t have a malicious intent towards them and that’s why the people in charge were developed.

If you have something important to say, why not be aggressive?   I don’t have a problem with being aggressive and attacking. That kind of art has its place. Earlier in my career, I made a lot of aggressive and attacking work and people really loved it. I just got to another point in my career. My father died and that had a profound impact on me. Aggression and attack started to feel less appealing to me, and I started to get interested in love and joy and compassion—all of the uncool things.

What did you find interesting in those “uncool” things?   When I look at our culture right now, we’re so fragmented and everything is about splintering off into your own group and it’s not working. It would be one thing if it worked, but it doesn’t. The more splintered we are, the less we can accomplish. To me, making a show that attempted to view straight, white men from a compassionate perspective seemed more radical and interesting than an attack, because we all already know what that is. There’s nothing to discover. It seemed like a very radical thing to do at the time and is more so now.

Straight White Men premiered in 2015. Is there anything you would do differently if you were writing it today?   I might be afraid to write it today. Things are becoming increasingly rigid right now. People are very frightened and for a woman of color to write a play expressing understanding for straight, white men is considered dangerous and just wrong. It was kind of scary putting it on Broadway.

Did you receive backlash? Older straight, white men ended up being the people who were the most vocal against the play. If the play were appeasing straight, white men, then straight, white men would love it, right? They really prevented that interpretation, because they hated the play so much. 

Have you spent time in Sarasota before?    No, I never have. I’ve never been to Florida.

The Sarasota audience is a bit older and rather white. Have you considered how this audience in particular would respond to the play?    To some extent, it depends on how it’s directed. If it’s directed with understanding and sympathy for the characters, then the play works better. I find that a lot of audience members—the older, white audience members—identify with the play because of the similarities to their own families. On the whole, I’ve had a very positive reaction to the play itself, but they do hate that pre-show music. I just don’t know how they are going to deal with that pre-show music. I think they’re going be pretty mad. The front of house staff is going have a job.

Is the audience part of the performance to you? 100%. The audience is definitely a part of the show. And that’s why laughter is really important to me. I don’t think I’ve ever written a play that didn’t have comedy in it, because that’s one of the major ways that an audience participates in a play, by laughing and by crying.

Though the play is called Straight White Men, an overarching issue seems to be class.  There’s a huge word missing in the title, which is middle class. It’s a middle class family and some of the sons are privileged. A lot of the privilege of this family comes from their class in addition to their race and gender, and one of the sons is failing to live up to the expectations of his race, class and gender. 

Did you consider putting middle class in the title, or is its absence how it speaks?   Its absence is a problem, actually. It just didn’t flow. Straight White Middle Class Men? I thought about making the ‘S’ a dollar sign, but that implies that all straight, white men have money, so I didn’t want to do that. But I think that middle class should be in the title, because the privilege that those men are dealing with and their issues are not the issues of all straight, white men.

What does it mean to be the first Asian American female playwright with a play on Broadway? On one hand it seems congratulatory, on the other hand it seems reductive. I think 2018 seems kind of late for that to be happening. To me, it wasn’t entirely celebratory, but I certainly did not mind being presented as somebody who had made history. That was very good for the play, and it was good for me.

What do you hope the audience will walk away from with this? All of my plays are structured like roller coaster rides. You’re just supposed to strap yourself in and go. My ideal audience member is somebody who comes in without a lot of expectations. They just go where the play takes them, and at the end they have a conversation about what they saw and what they thought. What they say about the show doesn’t matter to me so much as the fact that they’re talking about the issues that were in the show. Even if they hated the ride, they’re still somebody who went on the ride.