When Young Jean Lee began developing her play “Straight White Men” in 2013, her earliest audiences had yet to grapple with the concept of cultural and social privilege, much less seen it dramatized onstage.
Fast-forward five years, and “Straight White Men” is a hot ticket on Broadway. The show, which opened July 23 at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre and is directed by Tony Award winner Anna D. Shapiro, is a subversive look at a number of hot-button issues that feel very 2018, including American values, heteronormativity and toxic masculinity.
“There’s a whole vocabulary around talking about identity now,” Lee told HuffPost. “Back then, it was complete bafflement. It’s been interesting to witness that change.”
Much of the initial buzz surrounding “Straight White Men” focused on Armie Hammer, who is making his Broadway debut in the comedy-drama. However, it isn’t a star vehicle. The “Call Me by Your Name” actor plays Drew who, along with brothers Jake (Josh Charles) and Matt (Paul Schneider), returns to his childhood home to spend Christmas with his widowed father, Ed (Stephen Payne). The play also boasts a unique framing device, featuring two non-binary performers (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe) as “Persons in Charge” who introduce the action and offer sporadic commentary throughout.
And “Straight White Men,” which The New York Times called “undeniably powerful,” makes Lee the first female Asian-American playwright to have her work produced on Broadway. The 44-year-old, who was born in Daegu, South Korea, and has written and directed 10 shows with her eponymous theater company, said “Straight White Men” is just one example of how she likes to “go out of my comfort zone” through her work.
Currently working on a new play commissioned by Second Stage Theater, Lee spoke to HuffPost about her historic achievement, working with Hammer and how she plans to tackle another uncomfortable subject with her next piece.
What does being the first female Asian-American playwright to be produced on Broadway mean to you?
I didn’t know that was the case ― I only found out when everyone else did. It’s a little sad, really, that it’s taken this long to open that door. But I’m glad the door is open now, and I just hope my show does well enough that I can keep it open for other people.
Do you feel any responsibility now, having that distinction?
The only responsibility I feel is just to do the best that I can, so I don’t ruin it for other people.
Your show is opening at a time when Asian representation on Broadway has dipped. What do you think stands between the current state of affairs and more robust roles for Asians in mainstream theater?
First and foremost, racism plays a huge part. But there are other factors that exacerbate the issue. In this country, the arts aren’t something that generally pay well or are valued within the economy. Culturally, immigrant parents of young Asian-American people have this mentality that you have to be able to earn a living and be financially stable.
I think Asian-American kids aren’t encouraged by their parents to pursue the arts. Those who manage to get over that hurdle then face the problem of racism in casting, lack of [non-traditional] casting, and lack of roles for them to play. If you’re a professional actor and you’ve spent 15 years playing manicurists, prostitutes, geishas and whatever stereotypical bit-part is available to you, you’re not going to develop the same chops as someone who’s been playing roles like Hedda Gabler since college. It’s a rough cycle.
[But] I think things are going to change with this next generation. There are so many young Asian-American playwrights who are writing roles for Asian-American characters. I think we would’ve moved faster if it hadn’t been for the fact that culturally, becoming an entertainer hasn’t been valued in our culture.
Did you face pushback from your family when you decided to pursue theater?
Absolutely. They were horrified [and] heartbroken. It was as if I was telling them I was going to become a homeless person. I think it was terrifying for them, because they didn’t want poverty for me. They experienced that when they first came here, and they didn’t want that for their kid. They came to this country so that I could have a better life, so the last thing they wanted was for their kid to struggle financially. And I did struggle for a while.
Your play also marks the Broadway debut of Armie Hammer. What made him such a good fit for this role?
What I respect about Armie is that he has everything going for him ― he’s straight, white, good-looking ― and he could coast on that. But there’s just something about him that reminds me of the immigrant ethos. He’s an insanely hard worker. It’s really amazing. He’s very dedicated to growing as an actor, and that’s his priority. The way he grows is that he goes out of his comfort zone, and he’s been constantly doing that in his career. I think that’s why he’s become such a great actor. He’s always making the choice that’s going to make him a better actor and a more interesting human being. He really, really commits. I just admire him so much.
Is there a topic you’re eager to tackle moving forward?
Yes, it’s class. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to make class readable and visible on stage as a subject, rather than just “rich people bad, poor people good” ― that sort of thing. It’s really hard. What I’m struggling with is that we have no vocabulary for class in this country. We didn’t really have a vocabulary for race and privilege in 2014, but it’s way worse with class. Nobody knows what anyone else is making. Nobody knows what the social classes are. Nobody knows what ‘rich’ means, nobody knows what ‘poor’ means.
If you look at your body of work as a whole, would you say there are common denominators that all of your shows have?
The one thing that all of my shows have in common is that they’re about being an outsider and about loneliness. The first 18 years of my life, I was very isolated. Those were my formative years. It’s interesting how, in some ways, you always remain the kid no matter what happens to you. There’s a part of me who’ll always be that kid who didn’t belong, and I think that still haunts all of my work.