Arts & Culture

Fitting denouement missing in 'Straight White Men'

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 2:01 PST, Mon February 10, 2020

Last Updated: 10:32 PDT, Tue March 17, 2020

The set is beautiful and the acting high quality. But I was still left confused.

In a deliberate attempt to unsettle audiences, the pre-show environment of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men (which opened last week at Gateway Theatre) includes loud music and coloured lights. 

While this setting is later explained, it is initially perplexing. Conversing with your neighbour is practically impossible over the drone of the background music.

Kim Villagante and Raven John play the two ‘People in Charge’: queer, non-binary people of colour who introduce themselves as “not straight white men.” 

John and Villagante act as the show’s framing device, which creates a story within a story and makes the main plot seem like a manipulation rather than an enactment of reality. The People in Charge are puppeteers who position the other (straight, white, male) characters into place as though they are merely props in an engineered setting.

At the beginning of the play, Villagante and John ask audiences a question: did they feel like their needs weren’t being taken into account when they entered the theatre? The play intends this discomfort to help audiences understand what it’s like to be anything other than a straight white man.

I understand the intent behind this method. But its execution is too forceful, and it comes too early in the show to achieve its goal.

The play succeeds in other ways, however. Some elements are masterful. Shizuka Kai’s set centres around a massive picture frame, which adds to the feeling that audiences are watching a kind of simulation. And Lee’s script is filled with snappy, conversational dialogue that seems straight out of a real-life family get-together.

As the three grown brothers, actors Carlo Marks, Daniel Martin and Sebastien Archibald develop an easy, familial banter. Playing their father, Peter Anderson adds a welcome gentleness.

There is plenty of humour. The brothers often turn to song and dance to express their emotions. A custom-made version of Monopoly called ‘Privilege’ also garners some early laughs, although I wish the script lengthened this game to explore the full potential of the questions it raises.

All six actors are entirely dedicated to their roles, delivering performances that are physically and emotionally engaging. They clearly enjoy what they do, but never seem kitschy—even in a play that calls for over-the-top drama and reactions.

After a lively first half, the show’s second half drags a bit—it runs at 90 minutes without an intermission. With a mid-show break, the People in Charge could reappear to remind audiences what to watch for, but instead the main issues get lost in the characters’ arguments and aggression.

When the lights went down to signal the end of the scripted show, my companion and I turned to each other. Was that the end of the show? Surely not, since the last five minutes had raised a handful of new questions.

Unfortunately, that did turn out to be the end of the play. However, the directors have added a 30 minute ‘Talk Forward’ segment as the play’s second act. Each night, a different featured speaker joins cast members and a facilitator to discuss the ideas of straightness, whiteness, and maleness. 

On opening night, one audience member’s lengthy personal analysis—after the presenters had ended the session—erased some of the efforts of Lee’s show. Ultimately, I left the theatre feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. 

The show encompasses a lot of serious questions and ideas, but its plot lacks a climax or denouement. Where the brothers should be reaching a conclusion, they raise their voices, addressing their privilege but never resolving their issues with it. I’m not sure what I was meant to learn from Straight White Men, a play I entered with a long list of questions and left with few answers.

Straight White Men plays at Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Rd.) through Feb. 15. For tickets, visit Gateway’s website.

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