It’s a mirror. And a prism. Also a workout. These are all good things.
In The Shipment, Young Jean Lee, who is Korean American, takes on the cultural representation of African American identity.
Structurally, she has assembled a surrealist collage. She combines a series of disparate elements—a stand-up routine, a dance sequence, a gangsta narrative, a song, and a quasi-naturalistic comedy—to create a piece of art that is allusive and unsettling.
The first part of this one-act is an examination of minstrelsy—of the ways that black experience is distorted by popular culture.
Consider the stand-up comic. His currency is outrageousness. He insults white people: “Seriously, you ever heard a white person whine? ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.’ ‘I hate feeling fat all the time.’” He insults black people. He even defends bestiality and incest: “Listen, if yo’ sister want you to fuck her in the ass, and your dick hard, GO IN!”
But the comic is also trapped by his persona. He doesn’t want to ride race so hard all the time; he wants to tell poop jokes. His yo-mothafucka voice isn’t even authentic: “Anyone who ever seen me do an interview know I don’t talk the same way onstage that I do in real life.” But he’s afraid of dropping the voice, afraid of being accused of racial betrayal, of trying to sound white—and getting the shit kicked out of himself.
Maybe this kind of racialized shtick helps to keep us all trapped, giving black audience members an avatar whose defiance promises change, but doesn’t deliver because it’s really just a safety valve. And it provides white audiences with a good, guilt-reducing whipping—“Yes! I’m awful! Ha ha! But not really!”—and a safely distanced body onto which to project our most disturbing impulses.
You might think I’m getting too heady, but Lee is clearly inviting analysis. In her author’s note in the script, she says that her goal is to create “a kind of uncomfortable, paranoid watchfulness in everyone.” She succeeds. I love this script because it makes me think so hard.
The gangsta narrative is about the cliché black characters of popular entertainment, the kind of roles that are typically available to black actors in Vancouver and elsewhere: the drug dealer, the ho, the innocent youth, the wise, old grandmother. Conceptually, that’s all easy to grasp. In this passage, it’s the stylization of the writing and performance that create intriguing dissonance. The dialogue is storybook simple and, as dictated by the script, its delivery is deadpan. With flatlining intonation, Drug Dealer Desmond says to Rapper Omar, “I’m going to rob people and shoot them and also sell drugs. You should too.” The embodiment of the text—Lee directs the premieres of her work—speaks viscerally to the deadly hollowness of this mindless representation.
Conceptually, the comic play that makes up more than the last third of the evening is the script’s most challenging element. In it, a cocktail party goes wrong when Thomas, the host, starts to insult and threaten his guests. It’s like a weird, watered-down version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But what the hell does this comedy have to do with racial representation? The actors aren’t playing the usual stereotypes, but, beyond that, I struggled to find a satisfying answer.
Then, after the performance, I read this note in the program: “For the second half of the show, Lee asked the actors to come up with roles they’d always wanted to play, and wrote a naturalistic comedy in response to their requests.” That is fascinating because the characters in this passage behave a lot like the white whiners the comic complains about: one of them has a long list of dietary restrictions, another just doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life. One could read this section as a parody of the mainstream fare that’s currently available. You could also read it as a comment on the aspirations of Lee’s actors: like gay men who are eager to appear masculine, they are accepting the terms of their oppressors.
We should all thank Speakeasy Theatre for bringing this cutting-edge script to Vancouver and for giving The Shipment such a solid production.
Omari Newton, who co-directed the piece, took over for another actor on the first day of tech rehearsals, which must have been heartstopping. And, playing the stand-up comic and Thomas, among other characters, Newton delivers a performance informed by passion and illuminated by skill. I was particularly impressed by his mastery of the comic’s many voices.
Chris Francisque makes a gluten-free meal of his nervous party guest and enjoys flipping the on-off switch for his expressive face. Lanky Andrew Creightney’s low-key credibility speaks to his extensive experience in film and TV. The whole cast, which also includes Adrian Neblett and Kiomi Pyke, delivers.
There’s also a directorial choice in this production that I want to address. Before launching into the sitcom chunk, the cast members sing a song that contains the refrain, “I might disintegrate into the thin air if you’d like/I’m not the dark center of the universe like you thought.” After that song, co-directors Newton and Kayvon Khoshkam allow the actors to simply stand and look at the audience—for long minutes. It’s a daring—and moving—choice.
How you experience the result will depend on a number of things, most crucially on how you situate yourself in terms of race. As a privileged, liberal white guy, I was aware of the indignities and limitations of minstrelsy that the evening had been presenting. And I was aware that I was looking at black performers whose everyday experience of the world is different from mine in essential ways. Within that, I was most aware of the relief I experienced in the simple physical sharing of space, in the gaze-to-gaze recognition of the common humanity of everyone in the room—humanity that goes so much deeper than our problematic constructions of race.
THE SHIPMENT By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Omari Newton and Kayvon Khocksham. A Speakeasy Theatre production in the Vancity Culture Lab on Friday, November 25. Continues until December 2.
Get your tickets here. (NOTE: Because tickets are selling fast, Speakeasy Theatre has added a 10 p.m. performance on December 1. I’m writing this on November 27. Book now.)
RELATED ARTICLE: “Billy Porter: The First Time I Refused to Keep Playing a Stereotype”. Read this piece. It’s great.
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