Straight white Americans are the worst. Especially but not exclusively straight white American men. How do I know? I saw a lot of theater in Chicago this year. Sure, you might glean the same conclusion from news stories (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore) or history books (slavery, genocide) or social media (@realDonaldTrump). But a play distills behavior in a way nothing else can. And the distillate left by a remarkable number of recent shows is the message that straight white Americans suck.
Straight whites have been depicted as villains before, of course, but it didn’t matter because the heroes were inevitably straight and white too. Now more scripts by people of color are getting staged, along with less camouflaged scripts by the noncisgendered—and they’re somehow disinclined to treat SWAs kindly.
Steppenwolf Theatre was a prime locus for the exploration of SWA suckiness this year—interestingly, inasmuch as its founders and current artistic director are all SWAs themselves. Their season of indictment began, appropriately enough, with Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee, the centerpiece of which is a thoughtful portrait of a guy who’s had all the breaks but ended up paralyzed anyway, because he’s smart enough to see that his very existence is a kind of aggression. Lee surrounds that story with metagestures calculated to make a SWA-majority audience as uncomfortable as possible.
Next came Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, in which white people break down into two categories: sociopathic cop and Satan. Well, three, if you count tensed-up patrons. And Taylor Mac delivered the coup de grace with Hir, a kind of black-comic eulogy for the whole concept of a straight white America.
Over at American Theater Company, Will Davis (who happens to be white and transgender) spent much of his first season as artistic director subverting SWA hegemony by ignoring it: Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats had no male parts, anatomy-wise; William Inge’s Picnic played out in a gender-fluid universe, the actors seemingly cast according to the disposition of their hearts rather than the contents of their pants. It wasn’t until last month that Davis acknowledged SWA—or, more accurately, SWT (straight white Texan)—perfidy head-on with Welcome to Jesus, Janine Nabers’s tale of a small town full of murderous white football fans.
But the starkest, least apologetic case against straight white America—white America, period—came pretty much out of the blue, from a play written 55 years ago and staged by a company known mainly for producing Irish classics. The play was Wedding Band by Alice Childress, the company the Artistic Home, and the argument revolved around a black woman named Julia, whose decade-long love affair with Herman, a white man, comes to a head in World War I-era Charleston.
If Wedding Band is hardly remembered now, it was actively ignored back in 1962, when Childress first tried to get it produced. And it’s easy to see why. Herman’s mom has to be the most vicious racist this side of a lynch mob, Herman himself has his cowardly moments, and Childress gives Julia a speech of such breathtaking rage as to send well-meaning SWAs out into the street afterward muttering, “They can’t possibly mean me.” Well, apparently they do. v