Vol 27 no.2

Visibly White: Realism and Race in Appropriate and Straight White Men

Dead white males. This oft-cited phrase encapsulates the ongoing project of dismantling the privileged monopoly that white men have historically held over the formation of an artistic canon and cultural tradition. In the field of American drama, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller (despite significant differences among their work) comprise such a tradition, one that elevates the realist family drama over other forms of theatrical representation and underlines the centrality of the white male voice in both the imagined domestic settings and the actual public sphere. Through its prominence in theatre programming and education, realism continues to hold influence on how plays are written and received in the United States, evident not only in recent Pulitzer Prize winners such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (2007) and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (2010), but also in designations such as “alternative,” “experimental,” or “avant-garde” theatre, which generally refer to aesthetics that are opposed to realism. This essay examines two recent plays that engage with this problematic tradition, albeit from an unconventional angle that probes and challenges existing representations of whiteness: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate and Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, which were both produced in New York in 2014.[1] On the surface, these plays stand out from the established institution that realist family drama has become in that they were written by an African-American and Asian-American respectively, challenging normative assumptions about the kinds of plays that playwrights of color can or should write. But in light of Jacobs-Jenkins and Lee’s previous, critically acclaimed work on racial identity and representation, the conscious choice to adopt—or more fittingly, appropriate—this seemingly orthodox aesthetic warrants deeper analysis. As such, this essay attempts to explain how Appropriate and Straight White Men disrupt the “traditional” link between realism and whiteness: in other words, how the purposeful emulation (rather than the rejection and dismantlement) of realist dramaturgy and stagecraft can highlight issues of racial representation, even when the form has a long and problematic history of shrouding whiteness in the myth of universality.

It was in the work of feminist critics that realism was first associated with the Barthesian notion of myth as an ideological institution. To theorists such as Laura Mulvey, Catherine Belsey, and Jill Dolan (among many others), realism in mainstream cinema, literature, and theatre mystified a patriarchal value system, normalizing and universalizing the male gaze and the objectification of women by masquerading as an unmediated and natural account of reality. Following the feminist model of cultural analysis, critical race studies has demonstrated how an ideology of whiteness is reinscribed through media representations—privileging identification with white characters and the gaze of white audiences, while stereotyping non-whites to a handful of recognizable roles and scenarios. Prior to its critical scrutiny by cultural theorists, whiteness maintained a mythic status; to be white means to not be seen in terms of embodied race, to be regarded only as “unmarked, unspecific, universal.”[2] Thus demystifying whiteness in dramatic realism involves asking, for example, to what extent Death of a Salesman reflects the aspirations, struggles, and tragedy of the “common man” when Miller’s professed commonality fails to extend beyond white people. Jacobs-Jenkins explains that his initial interest in emulating realist dramaturgy for Appropriate emerged from asking, “what is the gulf between [Sam Shepard’s] Buried Child and August Wilson? I went back and read every family drama I could get my hands on, and after a while I realized they are actually all about race or ethnicity or identity. They all are but they never get credited as that.”[3] While still acknowledging that whiteness functions differently from other formations of racial identity, Jacobs-Jenkins attempts in his play to mark whiteness as a race, undermining its claim to transracial universality by making it visible. Lee engages in a similar project, although the white characters in Straight White Men are strikingly different from more stylized renditions of whiteness in her earlier pieces such as Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (2003) and Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006).[4]

In sum, myth is present in the American dramatic canon in two ways that are relevant to my reading of these ostensibly white plays. American realist drama since O’Neill largely preserved the mythic status of whiteness, equating “white” with “human” while excluding or marginalizing non-white experiences, subjectivities, and modes of spectatorship. At the same time, whiteness becomes myth most effectively through the form of realism. Elin Diamond writes:

realism, more than any other form of theatre representation, mystifies the process of theatrical signification. Because it naturalizes the relation between character and actor, setting and world, realism operates in concert with ideology. And because it depends on, insists on a stability of reference, an objective world that is the source and guarantor of knowledge, realism surreptitiously reinforces (even if it argues with) the arrangements of that world.[5]

Diamond’s theoretical work on mimesis, with realism as its most rigidified version, translates Barthes’s definition of myth—“the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal”—into one that is specific to the conditions and contexts of theatrical representation.[6] The critical vocabulary developed by feminist criticism on spectatorship and identification cover some of theatre’s unique conditions. We may also include here Varun Begley’s extension of Diamond’s theory to objects on stage, in which the fully rendered living room sets and realistic props (the epithetic “kitchen-sink”) of stage realism serve as “ideological guarantors” that help reinforce the truth effect of the theatrical representation: “Conventional realism proclaims what things are, rather than exploring how they might be appropriated and used.”[7] The overbearing presence of material things in Appropriate and Straight White Men fulfill the expectations of realist stagecraft, but when whiteness is highlighted, the socio-economic dimensions of these objects (property, the inheritance of wealth and social status, relationships to labor and leisure, etc.) also stand out. These twin principles outlined by previous scholarship will be crucial to my analysis: realism mystifies both itself (by replacing theatrical representation with an “objective world”) and racial hegemony (by replacing whiteness with universality).

That said, the parenthetical aside in the last clause of Diamond’s quote introduces a difficult problem to the framework of realism and (de)mystification. She concedes that realism inevitably reinscribes the dominant ideology even when the intention is to challenge it. While Diamond sought to develop an analytical method that moved beyond the compromised politics of realist dramaturgy (which she calls “gestic criticism”), other scholars have attempted to qualify myth-based critiques of realism to account for realist plays that do not, in their view, reinforce hegemony.[8] Using the example of Terry Baum and Carolyn Meyer’s play Dos Lesbos (1980), which takes the form of realist drama but advances a radical feminist/lesbian perspective, Jeanie Forte attempts to “identify a feminist writing practice that emulates realism but operates as a different discursive strategy, perhaps a pseudo-realism.”[9] Similarly, Josephine Lee argues that the critical discourse on realism and ideology must be revised when dealing with Asian-American family dramas that adhere to conventional realism. Not only do the plays of Frank Chin and David Henry Hwang “work against a sense of mastery, of total identification, for either the Asian American or non-Asian American viewer,” they also provide opportunities of spectatorship that “support rather than oppose moments of sympathetic identification.”[10] Forte and Lee believe that realist dramaturgy can engender a sense of belonging and political purpose for minority groups when placed in the right hands, contrary to Diamond’s assertion that realism can only reinforce and mystify. But it seems to me that these counterarguments rely on the assumption that such plays feature characters and audiences that both belong to the minority group in question: that the Chinese-American families depicted in Chin and Hwang’s plays speak to Chinese-Americans in the audience. Only in this setting can something as inimical as “sympathetic identification” (which plays a crucial role in how ideology is reinforced, according to earlier theorists) can be recuperated “to authenticate through public performance a vision of ethnic community hitherto erased from public view.”[11]

But how, then, are we to understand the all-white casts in Appropriate and Straight White Men? Strictly speaking, these plays couch the lives and perspectives of white characters within a mode of representation that subtly instates the stage as a reflection and extension of reality. Do these works still qualify as pseudo-realism, in other words, appropriations of realism that avoid its ideological pitfalls? I wish to make the case that they do, which requires a further revision of the critical discourse on realism and myth. Unlike earlier dramatic appropriations of realist dramaturgy, Jacobs-Jenkins and Lee are not interested in divorcing form and ideology; instead, they acknowledge and make full use of the historical affinity between whiteness and realism. That is, the conventionality of realism itself can highlight issues of race not by satirizing or parodying whiteness, but by rigorously embodying it. Indeed, what makes these plays so innovative and potentially radical as artistic interrogations of whiteness is the fact that they are not parodies. Some of the characters are unlikeable, but not necessarily because they are white. They are not caricatured vessels of dominant ideology, but rather individuals: struggling, confused, and emotionally torn. After all, if the “privilege of being white in white culture is not to be subjected to stereotyping in relation to one’s whiteness,” then reducing whiteness into a stereotype is subverting it without probing the full extent of the white culture that guarantees that privilege.[12] Instead, these plays surprisingly ask the audience for old-fashioned sympathetic identification towards their white characters, even as they draw attention to the privileged, unequal position that whiteness has and continues to occupy in American society.

White supremacism, the most extreme manifestation of whiteness as ideology, literally forms the background of Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, set in a derelict manor in southern Arkansas that was once a slave plantation. Following the death of the estate’s owner Ray Lafayette, his three estranged children, all middle-aged, return to their old family home to take stock of the property and auction it off to repay their father’s steep debts. The past works on the present as the family’s long and painful history emerges through expository recollections and mutual accusations of past misdeeds in typical realist style. Yet the characters are cautious and defensive when the past that they dig up touches upon the history of racism. Toni, the eldest daughter, is especially averse to admitting that the disturbing artifacts that they find in their father’s bookshelves and closets mean anything, although she repeatedly insists on remembering the past to emphasize how much she has suffered and sacrificed to keep the family from falling apart. Franz, the youngest, returns unexpectedly after running away ten years ago after he was convicted of child rape to seek emotional closure and start a new life. His fiancée, River, encourages Franz to forget the past without acknowledging the racial legacy enmiring the crumbling house: “This place is still in your bones and you need to let it go. And, tomorrow, when you see it’s gone, you’ll be free. It’ll become someone else’s problem and you’ll be able to sleep again.”[13]

Before examining how these characters and their juxtaposition against the house’s history engage with issues of whiteness, it is important to note that the Lafayette siblings are fully-realized and emotionally complex (if somewhat over-expressive) people, molded from the same cast of conventional realism. Ben Brantley of the New York Times notes that Jacobs-Jenkins “has achieved the difficult feat of making them all both unlovable and impossible not to identify with,” meaning that the play does not treat these white characters as physical stand-ins for an abstract racial construction.[14] Such a concrete foundation of realist characterization is vital to how Jacobs-Jenkins then makes their whiteness salient—through their interaction with an old photograph album depicting lynchings of black men. The album’s spatial journey, discovered by accident on the living room shelf and passing through the hands of every character over the course of the play, creates a secondary plot that runs parallel to the family conflict among the Lafayette siblings; the range of responses to this document of racist violence—shock, disgust, curiosity, fascination, disregard, aversion—is as diverse as the characters’ inclinations and perspectives on more personal matters. Yet despite such individualized responses, the photographs mark all of the characters as white, as people that have never experienced the discrimination and violence that Hilton Als describes in his essay on actual lynching photographs: “Fact is, if you are even half-way colored and male in America, the dead heads hanging from the trees in these pictures, and the dead eyes or grins surrounding them, it’s not too hard to imagine how this is your life too, as it were.”[15]

Whiteness becomes apparent when these characters are unable to imagine the terminated lives in the photographs. Toni refuses to believe that the photographs are even a part of her father’s life, arguing throughout the play that they could have ended up in the house by chance. Bo, the middle sibling, wants to throw them away until he discovers that there is a lucrative market for this “highly specialized collector’s item” (75). When River and Cassidy (Bo’s fourteen-year-old daughter) are caught looking at the album, River distances herself from the images by treating them as an educational tool: “Cassidy was actually very mature about them. She was asking all the right questions. She was using the internet” (53). Yet the lynching photographs do not completely upstage the main plot. In keeping the focus on the lives and emotional struggles of individual characters, whiteness shifts in and out of view, clearly visible when the photographs demand attention and fading away when the family fights take over. Jacobs-Jenkins subtly stages opportunities for these opposing registers of whiteness—visible and invisible—to bleed into one another, rather than building up to one grand gesture in which whiteness is fully exposed and demystified. In this way, Appropriate is a sophisticated and carefully crafted meditation on how whiteness functions differently from other races. Steve Garner writes: “whiteness is a position from which other identities are constructed as deviant. The invisibility of whiteness therefore stems from never having to define itself explicitly. It is seen as the human and universal position requiring no qualification.”[16] Thus whiteness is rendered invisible when Toni suffers over her divorce and sense of failure as a mother, or when Franz seeks redemption for the pain and trouble he has caused his family because the conventions of realist drama ensure that they are human first and foremost in these moments. In adhering to realism, Jacobs-Jenkins demands that the audience acknowledge and grapple with the privilege of invisibility granted to whiteness while not losing sight of race in the background.

Realism’s reliance on material objects to verify the truthfulness of the representation here becomes the playwright’s principal means of keeping invisibility in check. The house itself serves this purpose well; in the end, the siblings are trying to claim a fortune accumulated through the exploitation of African-Americans. But hidden throughout the detritus cluttering the set are more explicit reminders of racist violence that intrude on the characters whenever they are about to forget the house’s racial history. For example, the important photograph album (which will resurface constantly throughout the play) makes its first appearance right after Toni and Bo’s squabble about who is more responsible for the estate’s ruin. Bo complains that the two graveyards within the property—one for the family’s ancestors, another for the slaves—make it difficult to sell the house “with all the red tape and historical ordinance crap”(21). As if the house is somehow responding to this dismissal of history, Bo’s wife Rachel discovers exactly at that moment that her eight-year-old son Ainsley had been flipping through the lynching photographs, abruptly ending both the argument and the scene. Later, Toni and Franz argue over inheritance rights and Franz’s past sex offenses when other family members enter carrying jars of desiccated body parts: “souvenirs” taken from lynchings. And in the emotional climax of the play when the pent-up anger and frustration explodes into a physical brawl involving all of the adult characters, Ainsley enters wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood he found in his grandfather’s closet. Again, this image immediately ends the fight and the scene. These shocking mementos of racism not only disrupt the dramatic structure, preventing arguments and fights from carrying on, they also mediate the audience’s perception of race in the play, turning these “people” into “white people” in the blink of an eye.

The mounting evidence of their father’s racism pressures the characters themselves to navigate this difference; the siblings want to claim what is left of Ray’s material legacy but at the same time “disown” the racial legacy inscribed in his possessions. In this way, Appropriate specifically addresses the most current iteration of whiteness as ideology: the myth of the post-racial. Post-racial politics reinscribes the dominance of whiteness by claiming that American society has moved beyond race after the “success” of the Civil Rights movement (amplified by the election of President Obama). According to social critic Tim Wise, this myth insists that “economic forces, and even ingrained cultural factors within the African American community have overtaken the role of racism in explaining the conditions of life faced by black and brown folks, especially the urban poor,” denying the impact of intergenerational disadvantages caused by slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as institutionalized racism today in the guise of colorblind public policy.[17] Not only does the notion of a post-racial society perpetuate norms and value systems that have historically privileged whites, it erects an impermeable border between whiteness before and after the eruption of race politics in the mid-twentieth century. When River accuses the entire family of racism, stressing “the evil and cruelty you’re descended from – that’s in your blood,” (84) Bo goes on a defensive rant that reflects this post-racial attitude:

Nobody asked to be born, okay? And certainly nobody asked to be born into this – this –shitty history, so tell me what you want me to do. You want me to go back in time and spank my great-great grandparents? Or should I lynch myself? […] I didn’t enslave anybody! I didn’t lynch anybody! (84)

Bo’s frustration and overreaction is in some ways understandable. Significantly, there is nothing in the play that suggests that he has done anything that would make him a racist in the way that his father was. But at the same time, even Bo’s appeal to his individuality is conditioned by whiteness; “I didn’t enslave anybody!” (84) can only be a meaningful statement of one’s morality to a white person.

Meanwhile, the curse metaphor that River evokes is in response to Franz’s long speech about how he threw the photograph album in a lake. He describes this spontaneous act as a healing ritual for himself, which River then extends to the family’s cursed history of racist violence. But Franz struggles to find the right words to explain how he came to the decision to destroy the photographs:

These things are…crazy. They are so powerful – They’re making everyone act crazy. […] They have like…an energy and, like, where did they come from? Because I never once saw them here. I never once saw Daddy with them. It’s like they came from nowhere. And I was like – maybe they emerged for a reason, you know? And I was thinking about what Rachel was saying – like these were killings – like crimes – I was like, maybe we’re actually supposed to solve this crime – maybe something is asking us to – to right what was wrong. (82)

The imaginary scene of the crime and especially the bizarre fantasy that the photographs themselves want Franz “to right what was wrong” (84) turns a specific history of racist violence into an archetypal scenario. In this fantasy, the photographs depict a crime without perpetrators or victims, without origin or material substance. Thus Franz also attempts to disown the racist legacy within whiteness; his act of rendering the photographs illegible then amounts to destroying evidence. But what’s more revealing is how he describes his “epiphany” by the lake:

There was a whole purpose to this journey! I didn’t just come here to heal – This wasn’t about me – this was about all of us. I came here to heal all of us – that’s what this was all about – and this feeling just took me to the edge of the water and the water seemed to be telling me, “Come on in. Come on in and cleanse yourself. Wash it all away. Take it all in with you and leave it here.” So I did. I took everything – all my pain, all Daddy’s pain, all this family’s pain, the pictures – and I left it. I washed it all away. (83)

Franz’s self-healing is also healing “all of us”; individuality and universality merge into one. But in his journey of discovery, Franz traverses through the remains—the unmarked graves and the photographs—of those who cannot be sublimated into this ideal conjoining of self and world. The play reminds its audience of those that are not included in the healing ritual, that are not represented, qualifying and limiting Franz’s scope. Then again, Franz’s speech feels comically delusional even without reading the myth of whiteness into it. But that does not negate the validity of Franz’s assumedly life-changing experience; in fact, his speech comes across as ironic precisely because we believe that he believes what he says. And that principle aptly sums up how Jacobs-Jenkins uses realist characterization to great effect in this play. The family conflict is never trivialized at the expense of race politics, and even the Lafayette siblings’ desire to disassociate themselves from their ancestors’ racist legacy is a real and plausible desire, just one that does not speak to all of human experience. In the end, although all of the characters in Appropriate are white, the representation of whiteness does not envelop the entire drama. It is too limited and qualified to stake a claim in universality.

If the title of Jacobs-Jenkins’s play ironically refers to notions of decorum in what we choose to represent, Lee’s title, Straight White Men, is as inappropriate a title as there can be for a realist play, wearing its ideas and politics on its sleeve rather than dissolving it in a “truthful” account of reality. Likewise, Lee’s reasoning for why she decided to write in traditional realism for the first time is highly self-conscious: “Straight White Men was an attempt to write an identity politics play, a straight white male identity politics play. And I wanted to use what I saw as the straight white man of theatrical genres, which is the straight play.”[18] Taken at face value, this statement sets up expectations that the play may be a satire of whiteness, expectations that are supported by Lee’s caricatures of white people in earlier plays. In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which is based on the 1932 film The Mask of Fu Manchu, Terrence and Shelia, the white protagonists of the film, explore their inner moral qualms in the final scene of the play after killing the Oriental horde gathered to overthrow the Western world. Denying vehemently that any of her actions are racially motivated, Shelia shouts: “I’m going to show everyone that I can make it, that I can succeed without these complaints of racism bringing me down, making me feel bad about myself! I want everything to be fair and nondiscriminatory and based on logic, and fuck you! Everything I think is based on logic!”[19] Shelia shares the same post-racial perspective detectable in Bo’s self-defensive speech, but the joke here is that the racial Other has just been eradicated. (She does say she feels bad for “killing all of those Chinese people” in the final line of the play). [20] In Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a play that also employs the technique of pitting lurid Asian stereotypes against “normal” white people, the white characters are utterly oblivious towards the Asians, refusing to acknowledge or even share the stage with them. While the Koreans and Korean-American grotesquely illustrate various stereotypes of Asian women and fight among themselves about identity politics, the white characters prefer to limit their conversations to their love relationship, their anxiety over potential alcoholism and other psychological problems, their desire to see Africa, and their dreams—all topics that mark them as individuals rather than members of a social group. Whiteness is finally recognized and problematized in one scene, but only for the duration of three lines:

WHITE PERSON 2: You know what’s awesome?
WHITE PERSON 1: What.
WHITE PERSON 2: Being white.
WHITE PERSON 1: Being white?
WHITE PERSON 2: Yes, it’s awesome. Isn’t it?
WHITE PERSON 1: I guess I never thought of it. And when I do think of it I feel like an asshole.
WHITE PERSON 2: You shouldn’t feel like an asshole. Being white is great.
WHITE PERSON 1: I guess so.[21]

In both of her earlier plays, Lee stereotypes whiteness just as much as Asian-ness, presenting her white characters as shallow, self-centered, and clueless of the racialized world around them. If the Asian stereotypes strategically go “too far,” the white caricatures are inversely devoid of dramatic content, unwilling to follow through conflict and stuck repeating meaningless, vapid dialogue. Yet this “emptiness” as dramatic characters is what shields them from racial politics; as Dyer reflects on whiteness from his own position as a white scholar, “[h]aving no content, we can’t see that we have anything that accounts for our position of privilege and power. This is itself crucial to the security with which we occupy that position.”[22] Lee’s white caricatures demonstrate the sense of security that having no content provides, while also attempting to penetrate that barrier and encourage audiences to consider the connotations of whiteness in relation to the non-white stereotypes.

Lee rethinks her strategies for representing whiteness in Straight White Men. When I asked the playwright about the all-white cast, she remarked: “if you’re going to have a play that’s called Straight White Men and there’s a minority or a woman in it, it’s like you know what that confrontation is going to be. […] There’s nothing that those two people could say to each other that would make me uncomfortable.”[23] Satire and caricature can easily become simplistic answers to a challenging political issue, and so in the spirit of continuing to challenge her audiences, Lee imbues the white characters in her latest play with a consciousness of identity politics that most satires of whiteness lack. Indeed, the white people in this play are able to speak eloquently not only about minority politics in general, but themselves in terms of race: for example, “No, our success is the problem, not the solution!”[24] or, “You can’t change the system without giving up the benefits you gain from that system” (70). Unlike the racially aversive Lafayette siblings, the three brothers in Straight White Men, also middle-aged, do not seem at first to rely on mythic notions of universality and humanity to mask their whiteness.

Yet when faced with an unresolvable dilemma at the core of whiteness, even their eagerness to talk about the problem (how conventionally realist of them!) rings unsettlingly hollow. Matt, the eldest of the three sons, has moved in with his father Ed after first dropping out of graduate school, and then law school. The play takes place during the Christmas holidays when Ed’s other two sons, Jake and Drew visit to relax and spend time with the family; during this break from work and social life, the four men play games, joke around, sing, dance, decorate the Christmas tree, dress up as Santa Claus, and consume an exorbitant amount of food. Everything is swell. But then Matt suddenly breaks down crying in the middle of a Chinese take-out dinner, which prompts Jake and Drew to delve into Matt’s condition, questioning his puzzling lack of ambition and his self-professed contentment working as a temporary administrative assistant at a human rights organization. Drew believes depression is the cause, while Jake makes a more troubling diagnosis: a debilitating feeling of guilt over white male privilege. Although the play never sheds light on the truth of Matt’s problem, the bits of information that Lee provides on how these white men were raised gives weight to Jake’s explanation. In an early scene, Jake and Drew dig up a board game that they played as boys, a modified version of Monopoly retitled “Privilege.” A relic of late-twentieth century identity politics, the game features a pile of excuse cards that serve as lessons of tolerance and social justice. Some of them read: “What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking.” and, rather on the nose, “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist” (63). Matt was the most dedicated of the three to radical identity politics, even establishing “Matt’s School for Young Revolutionaries” (66). The brothers look back to their home education with fond memories, but it is clear that these men are not revolutionaries, and that they benefit from a social structure that privileges whites. (Jake is a banker, and Drew is a professor and award-winning novelist.) Thus, even though these characters constantly mark themselves as white, disavowing myths of individual effort and transracial universality, it is uncertain whether making whiteness visible is enough to mitigate white privilege.

Admittedly, Straight White Men asks the audience to think through a rather forced scenario: not all straight white men are as self-aware and knowledgeable as these characters.  But Lee’s work raises pertinent questions regarding the profusion of identity politics in public discourse and the media, which may polarize audiences (potentially engendering post-racial backlash) or prevent deeper engagement with the politics of whiteness by providing easy textbook answers. Indeed, when Jake starts talking about Matt’s breakdown in terms of white privilege, Drew interjects: “you sound like an undergrad. Everyone already knows this stuff. It’s just masturbation” (70). In light of Lee’s ongoing dedication to creating theatre that makes herself and her audiences uncomfortable, Straight White Men demonstrates that the political vocabulary of the past is insufficient in tackling whiteness today. Hence realism. In his review for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood writes, “Believe it or not, Ms. Lee wants us to sympathize with the inexpressible anguish of her protagonist, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class straight white man named Matt who has failed to follow the codes of achievement that he’s expected to conform to.”[25] The prevailing cultural assumptions regarding whiteness make this request for sympathy difficult to believe, yet that is precisely what the conventions of realist drama solicits by focusing so heavily on one character’s interior struggle. Realism does not ensure that the audience will like Matt, but it does align them with the other characters as they try to pin down his predicament, to seek closure to Matt’s emotional arc.

Before the play ends, however, Jake and Drew grow irritated by Matt’s inability to provide closure, and at the same time provide disclosure (as Barthes discusses regarding conventional realist narrative), to make himself fully known. When Matt refuses to give a straight answer about anything, Jake explodes with anger at the idea that his brother is a “loser for no reason”: in other words, an asocial individual rather than a representative of whiteness (74). Drew, who had believed until now that Matt’s breakdown was caused by a sense of failure and disappointment with his life, remarks coldly: “Nobody cares about your egotistic white male despair!” (75). Unable to sympathize with this “defective” dramatic character, the other three white men simply give up and exit the stage, leaving Matt “alone, staring out at the audience” (75). Although Matt’s unfathomable burden stems from whiteness, the final image of the play suggests that his is somehow different from the whiteness of the other characters. Throughout the play, Matt is treated as a special case, a “freak” in Jake’s words:

JAKE: […] there’s nothing people like us can do in the world that isn’t problematic or evil, so we have to make ourselves invisible!
ED: “People like us”? What’s that supposed to mean?
JAKE: You know, privileged white dickheads. Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead, but a white guy’s pretty hard-pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed. So Matt’s trying to stay out of the way.
ED: Jake, you keep saying this, and I find it very hard to believe.
JAKE: That’s because nobody else would ever do it! Matt’s a freak.(74)

Significantly, Jake’s thorough analysis of whiteness only entails intervention in Matt’s special case; the social privileges enjoyed by the other white characters, while acknowledged, are regarded as an inevitable and unchangeable effect of the system—just the way things are in the world. By being ostensibly marked as white, Matt is paradoxically excluded from white “people like us” (74). But because he is only a half-finished character, lacking closure in the traditional sense, the whiteness that marks him remains unfamiliar, indeterminate, and not reified. Matt’s unarticulated dilemma suggests a potential fracturing of whiteness beyond its conventional image as an ideological monolith; to conceive of the possibility of sympathizing with Matt is to explore its rough and uneven surfaces, even if that means entering uncomfortable terrain.

To conclude, I would like to return to Lee’s tongue-in-cheek observation that realism is the straight white man of theatrical genres. The American tradition of realist family drama has been closely associated with the monopoly of whiteness in theatrical representation; Jacobs-Jenkins’s response to “hearing people describe the great American family drama” is “‘There are no people of color on these lists.’ Who has access to this idea of family as a universal theme?”[26] But realism resembles straight white men in another sense as well. In drama and theatre scholarship, realism is often treated paradoxically as a bully and a loser at the same time, both overbearing as a vessel of dominant ideology and underachieving as an aesthetic form—not unlike how straight white men are distorted into easy, abstract targets of criticism. The critical lens crafted by Diamond and other theorists allows us to see through realism’s smooth surface and scrutinize its ideological foundations, but as a damaging side effect, this lens has also blinded us to the form’s untapped potential by presupposing that realism always operates in the same manner. Appropriate and Straight White Men demonstrate that realism can still be a refreshing and viable form to explore the politics of representation, and especially the politics of representing whiteness, which has relied on realist techniques throughout modern history. The first step towards utilizing the potential for realism to offer such new insight is to move away from the Barthesian framework of myth that has dominated discussions on realism in the past few decades. As a form that enables myth, realism was thought in the past to insist on “a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity.”[27] But Jacobs-Jenkins and Lee’s dramatic worlds are full of contradictions and hidden layers, despite being inhabited only by white characters. In place of “blissful clarity,” Appropriate and Straight White Men leave the audience with the feeling that they have not seen everything, that realism’s representative scope does not extend beyond the walls of the living room onstage.


Kee-Yoon Nahm is a Doctorate in Fine Arts candidate in the Department of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Yale School of Drama. His current research examines strategies of appropriating cultural stereotypes in American drama and theatre from 1960 to today, in relation to contemporaneous political discourse on representation, subversion, and spectatorship. His writings have appeared in Theater, Theatre Journal, and the anthology Performing Objects and Theatrical Things. He also works as a translator and dramaturg.


[1] Appropriate ran at the Signature Center from February to April 2014, following productions in Louisville, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Straight White Men opened at the Public Theater in November 2014 following its world premiere at the Wexner Center for Arts in Columbus, Ohio and a brief international tour.

[2] Richard Dyer, White (London & New York: Routledge, 1997) 45.

[3] Branden Jacobs-Jenkins & Eliza Bent, “Feel that Thought: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Plays Are High-Wire Performances in Themselves,” Part 1, American Theatre (May/June 2014), http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/issue/featuredstory.cfm?story=7&indexID=44, accessed 28 May2014.

[4] I will provide a more detailed account of this trajectory in Lee’s work later in the discussion.

[5] Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis (London & New York: Routledge, 1997) 4-5.

[6] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) 142.

[7] Varun Begley, “Objects of Realism: Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes, and Marsha Norman,” Theatre Journal 64, no. 3 (October 2012): 339.

[8] For a more recent reappraisal of dramatic realism than the examples I discuss, see also Jill Dolan, “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein,” Theatre Journal, 60, no. 3 (October 2008): 433-457.

[9] Jeanie Forte, “Realism,Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright – A Problem of Reception” Modern Drama 32, no.1 (March 1989): 117.

[10] Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997) 56.

[11] Ibid., 59.

[12] Dyer, 11.

[13] Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Appropriate, unpublished manuscript, (2014), 46. Used by permission. All subsequent references are indicated in parenthesis.

[14] Ben Brantley, “A Squabbling Family Kept in the Dark,” New York Times, 16 March 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/17/theater/in-appropriate-branden-jacobs-jenkins-subverts-tradition.html, accessed 29 November 2014.

[15] Hilton Als, “GWTW” in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) 42.

[16] Steve Garner, Whiteness: An Introduction (London & New York: Routledge, 2007) 39.

[17] Tim Wise, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equality (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), 63–64.

[18] Young Jean Lee, interview by the author, 8 February 2014.

[19] Young Jean Lee, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2009) 173.

[20] Ibid., 174.

[21] Ibid., 71.

[22] Dyer, 9.

[23] Lee, interview by the author, 8 February 2014.

[24] Young Jean Lee, Straight White Men, in American Theatre, unpublished manuscript, April 2015, 70. Used by permission. All subsequent references are indicated in parenthesis.

[25] Charles Isherwood, “My Three Sons and All Their Troubles,” The New York Times. November 18, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/theater/straight-white-men-opens-at-the-public-theater.html?_r=1, accessed 29 November 2014.

[26] Jacobs-Jenkins & Bent, “Feel that Thought.”

[27] Barthes, 143.

 


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“Visibly White: Realism and Race in Appropriate and Straight White Men

by Kee-Yoon Nahm

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents

  • “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance” by Brian Eugenio Herrera
  • “Visibly White: Realism and Race in Appropriate and Straight White Men”  by Kee-Yoon Nahm
  •  “Capable Hands: The Myth of American Independence in D.W. Gregory’s The Good Daughter” by Bradley Stephenson
  • “Rooting Out Historical Mythologies; or, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its Sophisticated Nineteenth Century Audience” by Samuel Shanks

 

www.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

 

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