Straight White Men director Nescha Jelk and star Hugh Parker sit down with The Adelaide Review to talk satire and privilege.
“I think the title puts peoples’ guard up,” says Nescha Jelk, resident director of the State Theatre Company of SA’s latest production, Straight White Men. “People might think it’s about white men being a villain. It’s not.” Straight White Men comes from Obie Award-winning New York playwright Young Jean Lee. It delves into the world of privilege, and asks what exactly makes a straight white man a straight white man, aside of course from him being a heterosexual Caucasian male. “The play asks questions, but doesn’t seek to answer them right away,” says Jelk, explaining that Lee’s script isn’t preachy, and hopes to bring a complex issue into view rather than advocate some all-encompassing solution. “Eddie McGuire should see this play,” jokes Hugh Parker, who plays Matt, a man who eschews society’s expectations of a ‘straight white man’ as he returns home to his all-male family for Christmas. Parker explains that his character Matt’s ambiguity on matters of male pride utterly confounds his father and brothers. “He’s not fulfilling his potential, or his stereotype,” says Parker. This refusal to brag, chase success and chat idly about women baffles the other men in the play to the point where they try themselves to explain his life and defend his masculine honour in hilarious fashion. Yet while the play happily satirises the attitudes of its male characters and society more generally, it also recognises an inherent flaw in criticising the atypical straight white man. “Lee points out in this show that the people who make that point might be driven by those same desires as the men they criticise,” says Jelk, referring to the modern citizen’s urge to grow, succeed and provide throughout their lives.
The cast of Straight White Men, including ‘Stage Hand in Charge’ Alexis West
Asked whether working on the play has made them consider their own privileged status, both Jelk and Parker are conciliatory. Parker says he is “very well aware of where I came from” and Jelk says, that working on the show has made her “own” her privilege. Currently in their final weeks of rehearsal, Jelk and Parker are still grappling with those crucial questions and the depth of Lee’s text. “Week by week, it manages to trip us up along the way,” says Parker, noting that the play is “full of easter eggs, if you will.” These nuggets of backstory, hints to characters’ motivations and crucial symbolic moments are deeply layered in Lee’s script. “As a piece of text, it will withstand an enormous amount of exploration and bombardment,” Parker says with admiration. One curious, completely unconventional aspect of the play that should be a delight to watch is the inclusion of a ‘stage hand in charge’. Scaffolding erected at the edge of the stage will host Alexis West, a local female indigenous theatre maker. An unfamiliar concept, West will “dictate to the straight white men” from her position, moving on and off the stage. Without giving too much away, Jelk and Parker explain that she represents an ‘other’ totally distinct to the characters on stage, yet with the capacity to control the space and performance. Jelk says that previous reviews of Straight White Men have interpreted this character/crew member as a maid. “That says more about the reviewer than the show, I think,” she laughs. Straight White Men Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre 1 – 23 July statetheatrecompany.com.au