An American-Korean director and playwright tackles black politics in a challenging script that's brutally funny, and just plain brutal.
As progressive as we like to think our society is, every once in a while there is a case (Trayvon Martin, for example) that exposes an obscene, overt act of racism. We mourn the victim, shame the culprit, and take solace in the fact that, by and large, we do not share those shameful opinions.
Then there are shows like Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment, which are obviously less tragic, but arguably more shocking—because they aren’t about dissecting someone else’s preconceptions about race, but constantly causing you to run up against your own.
In its Canadian premiere, The Shipment confronts the audience with presentations of blackness in modern entertainment: opening with a dance number, followed by a stand-up routine, a rags-to-rapper sequence ripe with black stereotypes, a rendition of Modest Mouse’s “Dark Centre of the Universe,” and concluding with a naturalistic-style scene at a cocktail party. The cast of five—Jordan Barbour, Douglas Scott Streater, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Amelia Workman, and Prentice Onayemi—has reunited for this production (they last performed it in December 2010), and years of international touring has resulted in a seamless blend of all these elements and a natural chemistry between the actors. Everything in this play works together in harmony—all to disorient the audience as much as possible. It’s a carefully constructed sequence of manipulations that create performances as unique as each individual audience member who is reacting to them.
New York–based playwright and director Young Jean Lee has craftily set up the play with pieces that purposely lure us in with performances we can easily, passively consume before hitting us on the head with more serious points. Though they seem disjointed, the scenes all work together to build to the final line of the show, one that hits a strong punch to the gut. As a Korean-American, critics have wondered what impact her cultural background would have on a play so specifically about institutionalized black racism. But Lee relied on her cast to provide the content, who could veto anything they felt uncomfortable with during the creation of the play, and used her own sense of discomfort and being “an outsider” to provoke the same reaction in the audience.
One of America’s most exciting and hyped theatre playwright-directors working right now, it’s a treat to have Lee’s work at the Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre, if only for a very limited run. We’re hesitant to divulge too much about the events that take place during its 90 minutes, lest we sway your reaction to the issues at hand. But what is clear is that as progressive as we, especially Canadians, believe we are when it comes to eliminating racial stereotypes, we don’t even notice how we consume the pre-packaged stereotypes shipped to us through entertainment. And don’t be surprised if this Shipment makes you gag a little.