As you entered the Southwark Playhouse to see Straight White Men what is heard is loud, pumping heavy African beat garage music with explicit lyrics that feature aggression, police brutality, acute racism, sexual abuse, job discrimination and pure hatred and other social conditions prevalent in American society.
Then with a click of a finger it is stopped and actress Kim Tatum and actor Kamari Romeo, as persons in charge, address the audience directly explaining that this music was to unsettle and perhaps upset some people. This is provocative and does achieve a certain amount of impact. Tatum’s address concludes by reinforcing that the music played demonstrated the total other end of the scale of the social spectrum to that of what we were now going to see performed, Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men. It’s the story of four men, a father and three sons who have come together to celebrate Christmas.
This ensemble cast led by Simon Rouse as Ed and with Charlie Condou as Matt, Cary Crankson as Drew and Alex Mugnaioni as Jake are truly fine, bubbling with an energy that is infectious and rather hypnotic as they play pranks on each other and fool around. Lee has created four characters that are well-rounded and well written that splendidly represent what can happen when you decide to play the American Dream game, to over achieve, under achieve or just coast somewhere in the middle.
Lee does a very clever thing by inventing a board game called Privilege which the guys play and of course the metaphor is strong with the comparison to a famous real life board game. Apparent where Lee suggests that to achieve the American Dream a lot of Americans play the famous board game for real as they live their formulated and mundane lives.
A very interesting proposition especially when applied to the way these four men converse with each other. They talk about their marriages, their careers, their sexuality, setting rules and regulations and ultimately as is the accepted American way, reaching your goals regardless of being happy – where demonstrating how macho you are is a requirement despite any recriminations.
The connection between the four actors is very powerful and strong. The scene where they all put on the same pyjamas is very funny. These are the uniform that shows and proves their family link and bond and the importance of their mutual and shared camaraderie. The acting honours gold star has to go to Condou whose performance is just sublime and his attention to detail when it comes to being confronted by his siblings is magnificent; and when his father finally admits that he is ashamed of him, his character will agree to anything just to get a peaceful and simple life. This is all he wants. He does not want to be his brother, a published author now having to get his second book out to match the success of his first, or his other brother, the banker who has no compassion at all.
There is no mistaking Kim Tatum’s vocal ability but where she sings a Christmas carol between the scenes is rather abstract and distracting; and also between scenes we see Romeo burgle the house and when the two formed a black power raised and clenched fist, was a bit weird, but if this was to show the different end of the social structure in the USA then it may have a place.
Lee is a good writer and where the observations are made that look at guilt, hypocrisy and rivalry this does form a well constructed and put together play. The story has to go full circle and works like a jigsaw when the pieces come together which gives the play coherence. The link between comedy and tragedy gives the story heart and an honesty and believability in the four men. There is one aspect of Straight White Men that is perfect: the examination of what does it take to be noble? And at what price emotion will come? Beautifully acted by the four actors. All in all, an intriguing look at male bonding. Equally poignant as it is provocative.
Straight White Men runs to Saturday 4th December at the Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BQ. Box office: 020 7407 0234 www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Photos: Pamela Raith Photography