Prioritizing Family Drama Over Constructed Whiteness—An Interview With Sara Porkalob

WET’s Literary Manager Maggie Rogers sat down with Sara Porkalob, director of Straight White Men, to discuss her approach to the play and how audiences can avoid getting caught in the trap of “feeling bad” for any of the characters.

Maggie Rogers: Could you tell me about your point of view on what Straight White Men is about? I know people say “this is a political play BUT it’s a heart warming family drama.”

Sara Porkalob: Whenever we set out to derive meaning from a piece of art, context and vantage points are key. For example, when it comes to stories: who is telling it and who is listening to it directly influence the extraction of meaning and because every individual has a different context and vantage point, it’s automatically false to assume that a piece of art, or a play, means one thing.

So, when people talk about this play as a political thing the “BUT” is already a falsehood. The “BUT” prioritizes the family drama over the politics.  Something can be political and a realistic family drama at the same damn time. You don’t wanna be hit over the head by plays talking about race? I don’t want unarmed black men to be shot in the streets by policemen anymore. I don’t want privileged little white boys who rape unconscious women getting mere months of probation because jail time might affect their future. Something can be the definition of how white supremacy infiltrates institutions and families and still look like the friendly, warm people we interact with every day.

MR: Right. Like white supremacy isn’t just a KKK rally in Alabama.

SP: Totally. And when we do that, when we say “white supremacy is a KKK rally in Alabama” we are distancing ourselves from racism, as if racism only looks like one way and if we don’t look that way, we’re not racist. When we do that, we relieve ourselves of any type of really rigorous investigation of our ideology and how our actions immediately affect the people around us. We are not separate from that. Our country was founded by, created by, and still is run as a white supremacist nation.

MR: I am sure people ask you this often, but how can white people be better? What steps can we take?

SP: Don’t leave this play feeling sorry for Matt. If you feel at all sorry for Matt, at all sorry for any man in the play, at all compelled to prioritize the family drama over the performative construction of whiteness created by a woman of color deliberately controlled by people of color – you are missing the fucking point. And you are not doing better.

MR: The play is divisive in being presented as a “white male centered crisis play.” Do you think the audience will be caught in this trap?

SP: If you watch the play, Matt is not having an existential crisis. He is content. He has actually found a way to be in the world that feels useful. And that is all that he wants and no one believes him. Even the people closest to him do not believe him – his brothers. His father. They are all convinced that something is wrong with him because we have been conditioned to believe that a white able-bodied man is the leader of the world. So any man who looks less than that or looks like he is not even trying to be the leader of the world looks like a fucking loser because of our white supremacist patriarchal society.

He is not having a crisis. Everyone else thinks he is having a crisis. And if the audience thinks he is having a crisis well then they need to check themselves. And they need to ask themselves why they are thinking that. That is what I had to do. I really had to do that when I first read this play because I had that reaction. I was like “Oh, I feel sorry for this guy. But wait, why?” and it took months to figure it out and I did. So I took the fucking time. I’m not white. But I took the time to figure out why I felt sorry for this white guy. I am sure that this brown woman didn’t write this play called Straight White Men for us to feel sorry for the white guy. I am pretty sure that it was the goddamn opposite.

So [laughs] like the playwright I am going to, instead of accept the first thing that comes to my mind, my emotional response to it because I have to realize this isn’t real life, it’s a piece of art meant to be questioned, interpreted, extrapolated; I had to take the time to do exactly that.

Speaking as an American artist, so much of the American theatre canon are, at their heart, family dramas, cathartic and emotional and mostly about masculine crisis. And secrets! Every white guy in a classic American play has a secret and its like “Oh you cheated on your wife because you are a traveling salesman and your son found out oh my god and his whole image of you is like distorted because you got your dick wet.” Or like, “Oh man, maybe if you hadn’t have slept with that pubescent girl, she wouldn’t be accusing your wife of witchcraft but like, whatever, this play is now uber political because you’re the voice of reason now.” Ok, whatever.

MR: And what is it that people scream in Miller plays? “Give me my name!”

SP: Give me my – who fucking cares about your name?! You ruined your own damn name. That is why you are mad; your name means shit and you were taught to believe your name was law. That your name was god. That YOU were god. You’re trash. TRASH.

MR: One hundred percent. What is something you want people to leave with and how does it differ from people of color versus white people?

SP: I’m not tryna tell my POC friends what to think but for the white people. Don’t feel bad about Matt. And if you do, ask yourself, why? And then do the work.

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Photo Credit: Joshua Taylor