When playwright Young Jean Lee was in residence with us last month for Straight White Men, she spoke at a few of our events about why she wrote her play and what ideas and feelings she was hoping to engage in doing so. She said so many interesting things but one that I can’t shake was that she chose to take on the topic of the naming of a certain group of people that had never suffered naming before. Meaning, while many of us are used to a certain kind of heading (or caption) that describes us–I feel like “woman” is a qualifier that I’m pretty used to–straight white men, at least in this country, have been for a long time the “default human”, as she put it. And she was keenly aware that we are in a moment in time where a shift is taking place and that, for all of us, this naming of something that has historically defied that kind of categorization, was probably going to have some kind of rippling social outcome. Her other point, and perhaps her most salient, was that nobody likes being defined by objectifying characteristics and that a society that continues to insist upon a fractionalizing naming of its citizens is, well, probably in trouble.
Tracy Letts’s Linda Vista is about a straight white man in Young Jean Lee’s moment. That these two radically different dramatists should accidentally end up next to one another on Steppenwolf’s current season is nothing short of a miracle. Because although both writers may be circling the same target, unlike Young Jean, whose project is perhaps more sociological, for Tracy the exercise is deeply personal. And the investigation, although easily as humorous and biting, is for Tracy also a dangerous one, as he crafts a portrait of the unaccountable young man he himself once was, still living in the body of the now 50-year-old man he knows he almost became. Charming, maddening, infantile, enchanting, Wheeler is waking up in a world he both helped create and too long ignored–asked for so little for so long that he has no idea how to stop the freefall that his life has become.
More and more, I find myself looking for our shared space in this world–how seemingly not-just-disparate but downright-oppositional experiences can be mined for the common, the communal, the mutual. There are times when my need for that collective is more acute than others and certainly, recently, it has been more of a global concern than a personal one. But as a theatre person, if I’m to be honest, for me it all starts there. At the personal. What makes us cruel or blind to cruelty, what makes us tender and whole-hearted, I believe these checks get written pretty early. And what we don’t know about how we have formed in reaction to early events–or the names we have been given–can make us dangerous not just to ourselves, but to others. And when we are not asked–because it is not expected–that we answer for the events in our lives, well, we–and the people who love us–are probably in trouble.
I have loved Wheelers and I have been hurt by them. That they may not feel, at first, the sometimes cataclysmic effects of their actions because they have never felt especially effective themselves is not an excuse. But when the world around them has named them unlikely to do better, and gives them no incentive to try, and yet–finally–they choose to change, well, that feels familiar. And I am okay with reaching out my also-named hand to help them up.
Anna D. Shapiro, Artistic Director