Young Jean Lee’s latest play, ‘Straight White Men,’ will make you uncomfortable

Young Jean Lee writes about things she finds uncomfortable — parsing Asian-American and African-American identity, creating a wordless play performed in the nude. In a Northwest premiere, she turns her gaze to ‘Straight White Men,’ produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre.

Let’s just spoil the end of this play right now and get it over with — because “Straight White Men,” by the marvelously stealthy bomb-thrower Young Jean Lee, is not an Agatha Christie mystery. She left her “whodunit” right in the title.

Straight white men dunit — to you and me and the rest of the world. And to themselves.

Lee doesn’t spare her stealthy bombs for the plot. She’s saving them for you.


‘Straight White Men’

Jan. 12-29 by Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $14-$25 (

As the lights dim on the final scene of this three-act family Christmas drama, in which little of consequence seems to happen, one of three white brothers (Matt), who’s been the butt of every other character’s anxieties, breaks the fourth wall from his seat on the sofa. According to Lee’s stage directions, he “looks up and out into the audience, looking from person to person.”

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This moment, director Sara Porkalob said, seems small, but it’s the crux of the play — when Lee sets the trap of a lovable white man having a little white-man crisis.

“It’s Young Jean Lee’s way of being like: ‘Ah! Watch yourself!’ ” Porkalob said. “What you’re feeling right now? You feel bad for the sad white dude? Maybe that needs to be analyzed.”

While not much happens during the play (nobody dies, nobody confesses a deep secret), the brothers’ Christmas reunion with their father is fraught with sublimated peril: The surface, bro-ish bonding — butt-slapping, board-game playing and Chinese food-sharing — culminates in an extended, passive-aggressive (and eventually aggressive-aggressive) attack on Matt for not doing more with his life. Matt went to Harvard and Stanford, and to Ghana for do-gooder work. So why is he such a sad-sack who seems oddly content to vacuum his father’s floor while the other boys are out having children and careers?

“I just want to be useful!” Matt protests. “I spent my whole life trying to make things better, and everything I did just made things worse!” Matt’s…

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