Actor Ty Defoe on Performing in Straight White Men

By Adam Kampe

Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe in "Straight White Men." Image by Joan Marcus. 

"For me, in rehearsals, every time I showed up I wanted to make sure that I was being truthful to my own voice."Ty Defoe

There’s a reason why the word multidisciplinary exists. Ty Defoe is that reason. He sings, dances, writes music, writes musicals, acts, educates and tells stories. This past fall, the two-spirit artist of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations joined gender outlaw, Kate Bornstein, to perform in Young Jean Lee’s NEA-supported experimental play, “Straight White Men.”

As one steps into the Helen Hayes Theater, you know it’s not going to be a straight-ahead (pardon the pun) family drama set over Christmas. Hip-hop pours out of loud speakers. As theater-goers take their seats, they’re greeted by Persons in Charge Number 1 and 2 (Defoe and Bornstein) who are clad in electric jumpsuits. Eventually, they take the stage and welcome the audience to what is no doubt a new kind of theatrical experience. Before the play officially begins, the Persons in Charge share a piece of their personal stories. Bornstein is a gender theorist who identifies as nonbinary and Defoe is shape-shifting artist who transcends gender (see two-spirit). Essentially, they are the opposite of straight white men and their presence is very deliberate. 

Throughout the play, there is a literal frame around the stage with a name plate that reads Straight White Men, which is to suggest that these men are a kind of museum exhibit. Lee uses the framing device to remind us of this other layer of meaning that imbues the play. This deeper meaning is also highlighted by the Persons in Charge who function as de facto spirit guides, coming and going, watching and observing, and literally sculpting the straight white men into various positions between scenes. On the surface, it's a story about family, resentment, memory, and ambition, but underneath that there's another narrative at work which offers commentary on access, acceptance, purpose, and privilege. In September, I sat down with Ty to get his take on the layered play and why he was so honored to be part of the experience. 

The rest of the phenomenal Second Stage Theater production featured Stephen Payne as Ed Norton, the widower father. His sons were played by Armie Hammer (Drew), Josh Charles (Jake), and Paul Schneider (Matt).

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