‘Straight White Men’ was moving.
Our Yakka presented the impactful narrative, ‘Straight White Men’ at the Empire Theatre Church in Toowoomba. With themes of identity, privilege and race at the forefront of the production, the audience was not only challenged with new perspectives of thought but were seated around a thrust stage that physically opened the space.
When Ed and his three adult sons come together to celebrate Christmas, they enjoy cheerful trash-talking, pranks and takeout Chinese. Then they confront a problem that even being a happy family can’t solve: When identity matters and privilege is problematic, what is the value of being a straight white man?
‘Straight White Men’ is a 2014 American play by Young Jean Lee. The play’s 2018 production at the Hayes Theatre made Lee the first Asian American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. ‘Straight White Men’ made its Australian premiere in 2016 with Melbourne Theatre Company and was then performed at La Boite Theatre (Brisbane) in the same year.
The play was developed in three acts; the first two are comedy-based, while the third act was presented in dramatic realism and addresses the foundational issues and themes. The main question centres on privilege and birthright – why do some thrive in their identity and others find it problematic? The characters and relationships were very familiar to many in the audience, with relatable assumed roles and hierarchical positions within the family unit. There were lots of tongue-in-cheek interactions, and when one brother holds different views from the rest of the family, he is quickly dismissed.
Lighting choices were appropriate to the setting with a basic wash and natural props mirroring the lighting fixtures in a house, such as lights on the Christmas tree and a lamp. These small touches added to the realism and atmosphere of the set and performance space.
Upon entering the Empire Church Theatre, before the performance began, loud rap music by female artists was blared. It conflicted with the play’s title and contained intense profanities – with lyrics some would consider inappropriate and offensive. However, the lights of the space dimmed and the voice-over Acknowledgement of Country (by Heidi Sellars) was played – creating a sacred mood.
A strikingly realistic and stagnant set design placed the show in the lounge room of Ed’s house. This had audiences feeling as though they were looking in, almost participating, in this family and their festivities. The lounge placement was natural but obstructive with actors’ backs partially or fully exposed to the audience at times, adding to a realistic environment. As it was Christmas time, alcohol bottles and whisky in glasses were casually passed between the father and brothers – in some ways emulating it was a “typical” family Christmas.
Costuming was simple yet effective, especially when all of the characters donned matching white shirts and red boxer shorts. The sticky tag still attached to the front of the white shirts was humorous, as well as the elf ears and assortment of bizarre Christmas hats. A costuming highlight was the green patterned Christmas suit which gave a nod to the iconic ugly festive season attire.,
Overall, the impact of set, props and costumes combined was amusing and relatable for audience members.
Direction by Trent Sellars was superb. The use of the space and the blocking choices worked seamlessly; partly due to the realistic set design and the director’s eye to keep the audience involved and somewhat part of the action. The audience was truly a fly on the wall and the blocking made for annoyingly believable interactions. So annoying that some audience members could not see the actors or movement properly or at all, but the post-show Q&A revealed that these choices were intentional.
At the end of Act 1 and Act 2, audience members were prompted to switch seats with others in the crowd if they wanted a different view or perspective of the exhibit, with all audience members urged to oblige. Additionally, audience members “othered” in the back row reacted in a beautifully symbolic moment when they all simply stood to watch the play, no complaints raised.
Evan Hollis was remarkable as Ed. A convincingly realistic portrayal of the character who creates calm in comparison to his adult sons, however, can’t quite seem to understand his youngest son’s (Matt) perspective and outward desires. Despite this, there was a warmth to his character, and Evan’s performance should be commended.
Tristan James was amusing in the role of Drew, poking fun and one-liners at his brothers, and bringing the comedic antics out with his oldest brother Jake. Justin Tamblyn was highly entertaining yet somewhat archetypal as Jake. Tamblyn ensured his character was quite dominant and dismissive of his youngest brother Matt. Building tension while interacting with Matt was evident, however, a combusting climax of frustration and vocalised difference of views fell slightly short of the anticipated peak.
Matt, played by Brendan Thomas-Ryland was real and raw with an underlying strength that broke the mold of his family unit. Audience members empathised with Thomas-Ryland’s portrayal of this character. The inside jokes, dances and little jingles between the three brothers evoked a nostalgia for sibling comradery.
Ambiguity could be found in the messages about identity, privilege and race, forced upon audience members by the thrust seating, intrusive set position and obstructive blocking. Audiences may have seen themselves or family members in this rendition of the play, and could easily have felt connection and relatability.
The cast and creatives of ‘Straight White Men’, produced by Our Yakka, delivered a moving and justified performance of the text.
Straight White Men performed for one-night-only on Saturday, 2 July 2022 at The Empire Theatre Church. For more information, visit Our Yakka’s website.
Disclaimer: Creatives in this production may be affiliated with Theatre Haus. Rest assured, we always take active measures to ensure our reviews maintain their integrity and are free from bias.