Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Shipment

According to Young Jean Lee's bio, everything she does is calculated to keep the audience off-balance. Further, she specifically writes about topics that discomfort her, with the intent of challenging the audience. So what does it mean that her latest production, The Shipment, which is ostensibly about latent racism, is so tame? Or is it more subtle than the modern minstrelry, stereotypical stand-up routine, exaggerated depictions of rap life, and overall punchlines lead us to believe? That is, is race so ingrained in the way we see and think about things that our mind cannot be altered, that it refuses to be surprised or shocked? Or, better yet, are we so convinced that race is ingrained in the way we see and think about things that we force ourselves to look for sinister drama where there is none?

That's a lot of questions to ask of a play, which is why Lee's The Shipment may ultimately be more subversive than, say, Thomas Bradshaw's Southern Comfort, which very clearly and methodically told us exactly how to feel. Though Lee uses many of the same exaggerated comic devices in her work, The Shipment is entertaining and surprising, so should we feel guilty? It depends on how meta-theatrical the audience wants to get, on how exploitative it thinks Lee is actually being in her minstrelization of an urban dance routine (Mikeah Ernest Jennings and Prentice Onayemi, complete with smiles and half-assed wall jumps) or in the dead-on stand-up routine that Douglas Scott Streater (the scene stealer) delivers, in which he imitates and mocks white people as well as stupid black attitudes. There are moments of surprise in each of these: Is Mikeah embarrassed for Prentice and himself when he first comes out, or just putting on a show? Is Douglas seriously trying to get through to white people, or is it part of the act? More dangerously, are both true?

The finished product is so slick that even the more cryptic moments--an a capella rendition of Modest Mouse's "Dark Center of the Universe" (which I guess is mined for the way in which anyone, black or white, can "equally easily fuck you over")--are enjoyable. It's so slick, in fact, that the two longer vignettes--one a reductive glimpse at the Adventures of Would-Be-Rap-Star Omar and His Battles With Adversity, the other a half-serious comedy about a dinner party gone wrong--come across as pure gloss. The former is a grotesque: by the end, Omar is doing five or six lines of coke, and though it's clear that Lee is doing a pastiche of "thug life" it goes on so long that it no longer seems exploitative so much as redundant. As for the latter, it's awkwardly funny, but the payoff seems a little crude, comparatively.

A masochistic audience wishes for actual discomfort, for that leads to a resolved catharsis that helps them sleep at night. Lee denies this "happy" ending by putting on a happy show, albeit one that makes you wonder whether or not the smiles are just painted on. (The curtain call could have been used far more aggressively.) However, based on the theatrical work and the talented actors, The Shipment is worth any potential feelings of guilt.

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