I was admittedly tepid about playwright Young Jean Lee's 2007 TBA offering, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a show that seemed as though it was trying to push buttons I don't actually have. Her new show the The Shipment, in which the Korean American Lee set out to examine the African American experience, is an infinitely more cohesive and successful production—not merely button-pushing, but provocative, in the best sense of the word.
The Shipment is organized like vaudeville, broken into segments comprising skits, music, and dancing. All of the actors are black and the two stagehands are white, a formula suggesting an inverted minstrel show (one skit features black actors playing white characters, though we're spared white makeup). The acts survey media representations of African Americans: There's an angry comedian, a rapper, a "video ho," some soulful a capella (an absolutely gorgeous rendition of "Dark Center of the Universe"). There's even, in the play's final segment, black people as foils for the entertainment (and guilt, entertaining as that can be) of whites.
I'll wager that the show's opening monologue is the first time in the festival's history that a performer has greeted a TBA audience with "What's up, bitches?" A black comedian takes the stage, and launches into a "The funny thing about white people..." routine, his patter punctuated by moments of deep anger ("You think I like talking about race?") which dissolve as quickly as they came into ribaldry ("My boner is hungry!"). Another skit depicts the life of a rap star, from drive by shootings and playground drug deals to religious conversion in prison to the drugs and sex that come with success. The actors, remarkable all, are self-conscious and affectless, never letting us forget that what we're watching is a cartoon, not a reality. The meaning of the Albee-esque parlor scene that closes the show remains beyond me (if pressed, I think its melodrama refers back to a joke the comedian makes about "white people problems"), but in its details Lee reveals herself to be an incredibly perceptive social critic. As cartoony as The Shipment is at times, the work is grounded in an understanding of the way people are with one another—and it's that attention to social dynamics that makes Lee's satire so effective.
Your last chance to catch The Shipment is tomorrow at 8:30 pm at the Gerding. Details here.
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