A racial comedy in three acts.
The Shipment is Young Jean Lee’s brilliant take on a comedy of racial commentary. It begins with an empty stage, a completely black background against which the actor’s bodies are framed - all white elements in costuming pop out dramatically, particularly during the first dance sequence. Two actors dance around the stage, shifting between dance styles reminiscent of blackface performance, funk, rock, and blues. The soundtrack accompanying them tracks a musical evolution beginning with blues and ending in rock. The dance piece serves as a chronology of dance associated with black culture in america, despite (and quite interestingly) being overlaid with instances of music more traditionally tied to white popular culture. The dance is extremely gestural, the faces playing a central role as detached masks more than holistic elements of the body.
The actors leave the stage, and are replaced by a black comedian, cued in by a gangster rap track (Lil John and Pitbull) - “Seattle motherfucking Washington!” It’s somewhat of an uncomfortable moment, as this second act clearly marks and defines a series of performances of culture particularly catered to a white audience. The standup is traumatic, shocking in its delivery, and yet extremely funny. It touches on a huge range of uncomfortable topics, everything from white and black lesbian girlfriends to pedophilia. In a very calculated manner, the comedian enter’s the audience’s psyche through a series of “ugly feelings” - the beginning of this act is then followed by an auto-analysis of black comedy: “Why do black comedians still do white people like this, black people like that, jokes?”, “White folks be evil. White people are stupid.”, “Do you think its comfortable to talk about race?”, “We got to talk about race, white color blind people.” The standup act is also filled with concepts that allude to larger racial topics; particular words jump out, words that then tie to specific moments in black history and culture - the poop face, railroad tracks, beastin’, lynching, playing stereotypes.
The audience diverts this commentary. The uncomfortable silence is at times palpable, and at other times, the clapping seems like a clear defense mechanism of detachment. The comedian acknowledges a strain of systematic racism in american culture, pointing at the fallacy that is the assumption of background by reading performativity. At times reading like a political speech, the poignant commentary is applauded by the attendants.
Following the comedian’s act, the performance undergoes a 180 degree shift. Black stereotypes are brilliantly and blatantly portrayed in an extremely Brechtian fashion by an all-black cast. Interestingly, the result is extremely hilarious (without necessarily trying to be so), despite the pervasiveness of these stereotypes in popular culture. A young black teenager’s narrative is portrayed through detachment and temporal shifts, tracking his experience of wanting to become a rapper, and slowly sinking into the implications of this desire in a black community. What would normally be read as a tragic and violent narrative instead becomes a comedy of thought through a very calculated style of acting, in which the body is extremely controlled, and yet the voice is allowed to run free in terms of volume, while kept monotone. The physicality of the characters is brilliantly calculated to enact these very stereotypes - a black woman sways excessively from the hips, a black man crosses his arms in a “hood” gesture (it’s ridiculous to put quotes around these terms) every time he mentions drugs. Every once in a while, a line of dialogue that speaks for itself jumps out, grounding the comedy for a fraction of a second, enough to pierce deeply into moral mechanisms - “If you don’t shoot people, they don’t respect you”, “I don’t remember which one of us is talking anymore”, “you’re a pussy who doesn’t want to sell drugs”.
Finally, The Shipment enters the reenactment of white physicality with black bodies. A simple scenario is laid out - a man invites friends over, threatening to kill himself due to his solitude. A morbid topic, it again falls into comedy as a white audience begins to recognize themselves in a highly stereotyped portrayal. The question asked is, who performs white and who performs black? It’s probably the most effective use of Brechtian acting I’ve ever experienced. I’m still fascinated by the small “plants” of highly impactful text disguised behind what seems to be a comedy of thought.
The end shocked me, profoundly - I’m still in the process of digesting it. “The negro believes, just that”. And finally, the revelation is served to the audience, a revelation that was always palpable but perhaps never acknowledged. No one in the room is white.