For its 2016 season marketing strategy, the State Theatre Company of South Australia has gone with the theme of ‘white’.
On eight posters, eight white faces[i] dressed in eight white outfits stand against eight white backgrounds. On one, Roger Newcombe stares out with a befuddled look on his face, one hand pressed against his cheek. Here is the poster for the STCSA/La Boite co-production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men.
Lee is one of the most important theatre makers working today. With roots in the downtown theatre scene of New York City, she is one of the few women of her generation who is consistently creating work that tours to international festivals.
Her work shows frequent leaps in form, from Shakespeare adaptations that dissolve into episodes of Sesame Street (Lear) to indie rock-meets-confessional-cabaret (We’re Gonna Die[ii]). She explores notions of race, looking at being Korean American in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, and what it means to be black in America in The Shipment. Her last work before Straight White Men, The Untitled Feminist Show, was a joyous choreographic exploration of ideas about women’s identity.
She is, in short, a radical and varied theatre maker, who creates work that discomfits audiences, surprises her fans, and is filled with a love of performance and a deep intellectual rigour. I am ecstatic to see her programmed not only at STCSA/La Boite, but also a separate production of Straight White Men at Melbourne Theatre Company.
But it’s important to look at the context in which Straight White Men has been programmed. This is Lee’s latest work, but also her most formally traditional. While both We’re Gonna Die and The Shipment have played Australian festivals, it feels all too predictable that what is programmed here for an extended season is not, say, a difficult critique of the way black bodies have been viewed and exploited by white culture, but instead centres on a theme we are far more familiar with: straight white men.
MTC’s posters show a slightly more varied portrait of programming than STCSA’s; and La Boite’s full season is yet to be announced. But it seems clear in Australia, to an uninitiated audience, Straight White Men will not be viewed as a continuation of Lee’s explorations of gender and race. In these programming contexts, Straight White Men becomes a continuation of plays about white men.
This is, of course, part of the point of Lee’s work. Theatres have traditionally belonged to men and their stories, and Lee – a Shakespearian scholar – constantly works to subvert the form and our expectations. But it’s worth questioning why it is that this play – which is, at least in part, a critique of traditional power structures and liberal men who believe they are doing good – is able to exist within programs that otherwise fully embody exactly what Lee explores.
While the National Play Festival showed us an Australia that is multicultural, international, and varied, the major theatrical programming for 2016 that has been released to date[iii] shows us a world that is overwhelmingly white.
The only other female Asian playwright whose work will be performed next year is Australian Michele Lee, with a short play in Sydney Theatre Company’s Power Plays. Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander playwright Nakkiah Lui also has a piece in Power Plays, as well as Blaque Show Girls at Malthouse. Lui joins Leah Purcell, whose adaptation of The Drover’s Wife is at Belvoir, as the only Indigenous playwrights. The rest of the list of playwrights of colour is short.
There are a few other works that have been announced from writers of colour, including Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool’s Lighten Up at Griffin Independent, Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe at Belvoir, and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced at MTC and Queensland Theatre Company. But it’s a short list.
At three companies (QTC, Ensemble, and Griffin), just 20% of the work will be penned by women. STCSA is the only company that reaches 50% female playwrights.
This is where Lee’s work will be viewed: in a country where theatres continue to be dominated by white men.
Straight White Men could prove to be one of the most exciting shows produced at STCSA and MTC next year. Directors Nescha Jelk and Leticia Caceres, respectively, are strong and insightful directors of text-based theatre. Jelk’s Othello was a blistering play about misogyny and male violence, while Caceres’ work frequently casts light on faces that aren’t typically seen on stage, from the Scottish Muslim girl in Yellow Moon to the queer Indigenous boy in The Dark Room. If there are any directors I would trust to steer Lee’s work to stage in front of an Australian audience, it’s these two.
Though I am delighted to see Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it.
Reviewing Straight White Men’s premiere in New York, critic David Cote coined the phrase ‘dramaturgical normcore’[iv] to describe a suite of plays by experimental artists that work within naturalistic drama to create work that is subversively revolutionary. ‘Even toying with stage conventions,’ he writes, ‘Young Jean Lee is radical.’
But diversity in programming cannot only come in the form of plays that are crafted to emulate that which they critique. With any hope, those who program our theatres will see Straight White Men, then pause to reflect on all of the other straight white men they’ve placed on stage in 2016 – and consider what other faces they can place there in 2017.
[ii] We’re Gonna Die, which played in the 2012 Melbourne Festival in its original production, is one of the most important pieces of art I’ve ever encountered for its singular and personal impact on my life. But that’s an essay for another time.
[iii] At time of writing, 2016 seasons have been announced for Queensland Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse, Griffin, Ensemble, Belvoir, Bell Shakespeare, and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
Selected scripts by Young Jean Lee can be purchased from Readings; We’re Gonna Die can be viewed at Joe’s Pub New York Live, and the album can be purchased on iTunes; The Shipment can be viewed at ontheboards.tv.