Keeping It (Un)Real

Only two years ago, Joseph Biden, our Vice President-elect, made this questionable comment about Barack Obama, America’s soon-to-be first African-American president: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Mr. Obama obviously forgave this comment, although you can bet it stung.

While this exchange does not appear in her new play, The Shipment, it’s the type of racism that Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee sees just about everywhere in our society. The fact that it raises its ugly head even in high-level American politics, where every word is—or at least should be—carefully weighed, would seem to be confirmation of its ubiquity.

Though a book of Lee’s collected plays will soon be published, they must be seen to be fully experienced. As she tells us on her web site, “Every word I write is written to be performed.” She collaborates with her actors throughout the development process. Her satiric plays benefit from generous dollops of the absurd and her willingness to involve her company in most aspects of their creation.

Lee’s aesthetic is to create powerful theater that makes herself and the audience uncomfortable—she’s at her best as an irritant. She likes to get under your skin (after cutting her way in) and poke around in there. “Does that hurt? How about that?” she asks, before rubbing in a whole lot of salt and then fleeing mischievously. The results are only sometimes healing, but they are always provocative.

Lee calls The Shipment, an “African-American identity politics play.” The Shipment might strike viewers as a kinder, gentler Young Jean Lee. The blows are still there and the audience still squirms, yet the punches are softened by recognition of shared humanity. And comedy. Yes, this is a very funny show, even side-splitting in parts, and the laughs only increase as it goes along.

The actors in the all-black cast are multi-talented—each play multiple characters, and sing and dance with formidable skill. Standouts are Prentice Onayemi as Desmond and Mikeah Ernest Jennings as a variety of characters. Most of the actors were part of the cast that premiered this work last year at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. They command their roles and imbue the characters—with a gesture here, a wave of the hand or a self-conscious glance there—with a compassion that’s often not apparent from stripped down dialogue on the written page. That’s why Lee’s plays must be seen rather than simply read.

A variety show of sorts, with segments featuring stand-up comedy and dance, The Shipment is divided into three major parts. The first features a comic, Douglas Streater, who is a less funny and more vicious version of Chris Rock. He is fixated on the perverted and scatological, and, between rants about both white and black people, occasionally drops his “keeping it real” guard, even intimating occasional suicidal ideation. Streater gets in the audience’s face and makes them feel uncomfortable—Lee goads the unsure audience into laughing at intentionally bad jokes— frequently made at its own expense. I found myself hoping that Mr. Streater would inject a little bit more of the despair that his sometimes sagging façade belied.

The second part of the production is a sort of black face minstrel show. Framed almost as a teenage morality play—a cautionary tale about gang violence and drug use that you might see at a middle school—replete with a requisite drive-by shooting and imprisonment, it portrays black people in the hopelessly one-dimensional way whites often view them.

The third major segment of the show, a sometimes-surreal sitcom with an ending that might come as a surprise, is the funniest. This segment underscores what Lee seems to think are certain privileged, educated people’s capacities for meanness, even for psychological torture. Mr. Onayemi is hilarious and utterly shines as the wound-up but taciturn Desmond. Mr. Jennings is physically masterful. We feel his embarrassment with each awkward tic and facial expression.

A special treat comes after the second major segment, where cast members Amelia Workman, Okieriete Onodowan and Mr. Onayemi sing, beautifully and a capella, what I initially read to be an oblique and cleverly worded paean to equality. I was a little disappointed when I found out the lyrics are actually from a Modest Mouse song, and not Lee herself, but the subject matter seems oddly appropriate nonetheless.

Performed in a black-box setting, with black walls, floors and curtains, The Shipment is often visually stunning. The characters are dressed in formalwear, a device that lends an air of nobility, but simultaneous brings to mind the era of Mr. Bojangles. Mark Barton’s lighting focuses on the characters’ faces, fleshing out every painful or betrayed look.

The Shipment doesn’t cohere in the way that conventional plays do but, for Lee, that’s the point. It takes work and collaboration on the part of the audience to put its meanings together—any two people might come away with different interpretations. Lee has confessed on her blog that, during its development, sometimes even she didn't know where the play was going. Race relations are often thorny and jagged as well as subtle, and the content and structure of her work track that prickliness.

The Shipmentis another milestone in Lee’s still very young career. This is exciting work, liberating and vital to new American theater.

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