Further thoughts on Young Jean Lee’s ‘Straight White Men’ at InterAct Theatre Company

I come to bury patriarchy, not to praise it

Last week, in my other job as theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I reviewed InterAct Theatre Company’s production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men. Mark Cofta reviews it for us here, and I reviewed it for the Inquirer here. I think it's fair to say we did not have a similar experience.

The Death of Clotel, from 'Clotel; or, The President's Daughter,' by William Wells Brown. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

My primary problem with the production is that the company’s artistic director, Seth Rozin, a straight white man (henceforth, SWM), hired Matt Pfeiffer, another SWM, to direct. Lee’s script, before it says anything else, offers this stage direction: “The pre-show music, curtain speech, and transitions are an important part of this play. They should create a sense that the show is under the control of people who are not straight white men.”

The plot thickens

InterAct — and let me say up front Philly has benefitted greatly from Rozin's work and his company’s mission — responded to my review on Facebook by inviting audiences to participate in post-show discussions. They also said they made their directing decisions after investing “a great deal of time and care into this consideration, including consulting author Young Jean Lee.” Lee says she was never consulted.

She did, however, say that while she hadn't considered the possibility of a SWM director, if the production didn't pull off those primary instructions, "then that's a problem." She also posted reviews of a Melbourne, Australia production, in which Candy Bowers, a woman of color who plays a stagehand, DJ, and hype woman, oversees the proceedings from a balcony, making her powerful presence, and what is left unsaid and unrepresented as much a part of the show’s context as what is said and seen.

SWM knows best

To paraphrase Rozin, in this Inquirer interview he said he believes the play is about the complexities contemporary SWMs face when rejecting privilege. For his part, Pfeiffer approaches the motto of Lee’s theater company, “Destroy the audience,” in this way: “’I’m not actively interested in destroying anyone,’ the calm, collected Pfeiffer says with a laugh. ‘Nor do I think that's her intent.’” 

Considering this play's themes, the company’s casual disregard of Lee had me wondering whether this was something she and InterAct cooked up as an ironic meta-commentary on SWM privilege. It sounds crazy, I know (hysterical, even). But in a follow-up email, Rozin explained, "Shortly after securing the rights...I reached back out to Young Jean Lee's agent to ask if there were any parameters or requirements for anyone on the artistic team for our production." The agent said there weren't. He added, "We don't have an existing personal relationship with Young Jean Lee." So, I guess she wasn't in on the joke. 

The thing is, for InterAct, for Rozin and Pfeiffer, even assuming their otherwise diverse production team gave input and that their suggestions were heeded, this flipping of Lee's script is an intellectual exercise. For those of us who are women, ethnic, and/or gender minorities, this production is the same shit everywhere, all the time, on a different day. The world didn’t suddenly complicate itself. A Korean-American female playwright pointed out what has always been happening onstage, asked for it to be presented in a different way, and was told to step aside because the men knew better.

Or, she wasn’t told at all.

Hoodwinked and bamboozled

Either way, the conversation InterAct claims to so desperately want was hijacked, appropriated, and sold back to us (well, not to me, because I was comped) much the way, say, Thomas Jefferson appears in our history books sans any mention of Sally Hemings. Too much? Not if you understand that when SWMs decide they know best what non-SWMs really mean, it very often ends up — as it did behind a Stanford dumpster — like this.

What does it say about the quality of InterAct's conversation that all but one of the Philly women who responded to a Facebook call to discuss the play for this piece asked to remain anonymous? Only SWMs rushed to InterAct’s public defense, and when it turned out the company apparently lied about consulting Lee, they went silent.

American Theatre associate editor Diep Tran wondered why theaters "can't just hire non-SWMs so the rest of us don't have to debate and fact check their claims." Why does this keep happening?

What to do?

Isn’t "measure twice, cut once" an SWM maxim? If you’re using a Japanese theme, check with a scholar of that particular Japanese period. If you’re producing a play featuring brown people, hold another round of auditions, or pick a different play if you find your only option is to darken someone's skin and say, “Eh, maybe no one will notice." If a playwright specifically says something, consider why what s/he/they say/s matters before you disregard it (or ask them).

Another woman noted that in InterAct's production, the supposedly in-control stagehand is introduced as an apprentice, announces she's poorly paid, and from then on silently sees to the props during scene changes. InterAct seems to have since amped up her presence, at least judging from their Facebook posts and Cofta's review, so good. But by now that's sort of beside the point.

If InterAct wanted to start a conversation, here it is for free, so nobody has to buy a ticket to an event their conscience won’t allow them to support. Let it be known: This show right here is under the control of someone who is not a straight white man. But feel free to play whatever music you want when you write your comment. 

Our readers respond


of Philadelphia, PA on June 08, 2016

"What does it say about the quality of InterAct's conversation that all but one of the Philly women who responded to a Facebook call to discuss the play for this piece asked to remain anonymous?"

I didn't even respond to your call for fear of being recognized by someone. I think at the end of the day, while I have lots of thoughts on this specific piece, the biggest issue is that women aren't near the lead of the artistic table at InterAct, and often when women aren't near that position they are what is on the menu.

Having a woman artistic associate or apprentice may be trendy these days, but in the end it is often just a ploy to seem more diverse rather than actually being more diverse. The Drake is a great asset. All of the artistic directors in the Drake resident companies are white men. This is a larger problem for Philly in that, of course, there are so few meaningful women directors; they aren't given any room or invited to be part of the conversation. So why are we surprised when this shit happens?

InterAct does four shows a year. Seth Rozin usually directs two, sometimes one. The same is true with the majority of the other resident companies and their artistic directors. Heck, it's true about most of the artistic directors, which is why the Philly theater landscape may be fucked in the next 20 or so years, until all the founding artistic directors are no longer in their positions. In the meantime, it's always going to be 50% white men until someone changes something. And considering I'm another woman afraid to be quoted for fear of retaliation, I don't know if that will happen soon.

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on June 08, 2016

The song playing in my head right now is Aretha singing "Respect." Amen, sister! Great essay.

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on June 21, 2016

Surely we can all agree that theatergoing would be a richer experience if more plays were written or directed by women, gays, and non-white minorities.  But InterAct doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for the race, gender, or sexual orientation of its producer and director — only for the quality of its productions. Seth Rozin has spent three decades investing gobs of time, energy, and money to sustain his decidedly alternative company. Who are you — who have invested nothing in InterAct —  to tell him what plays he can and can’t produce, or to dictate the racial, ethnic or sexual background of the directors he chooses?

Editor's Response

I think you need to reread my piece. Somehow, far too many straight white men have walked away from it believing I said straight white men can't direct plays written by women (or ethnic and gender minorities). The TL/DR version is this: Young Jean Lee specifies in the first two sentences of the script that it should appear that straight white men are NOT in control of the production. Those are the playwright's words, not mine. The larger issue is that Pfeiffer said he knew what Lee "really meant" with her company motto, "Destroy the audience," and that it was that she didn't mean it, and InterAct apparently lied about consulting with her. Seems to me they really, really missed the entire point of this play by unintentionally proving its point. She really couldn't have written it any better.

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2016

What's that you say, Wendy? A playwright complains that her script was mishandled by a producer and director, and they deceived her, to boot? Oh my God — stop the presses! In the history of American theater, nothing like this has happened for at least 72 hours!

Seriously, the grievance you cite is really a private dispute between the playwright and her producers. For the rest of us, the only relevant question is: Is this production worth our time, money, and attention?

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