If you’re looking for a soft and fuzzy feel good play to ease you into a discussion of racism, then Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment isn’t for you. While “dissect[ing] what it means to be [B]lack in America,” Lee pulls no punches, spares no feelings and handles no one with kid gloves.
The five-person production opens with the talented Douglas Scott Streater performing a stereotypical, in your face, potty-mouthed stand-up comedy routine á la Chris Rock, Paul Mooney or Richard Pryor. Ripping into the nearly all-white audience, the routine touches on reverse racism, colour blindness, stereotypes, white privilege, the evolution of racism (overt vs. nuanced and subtle) and the fallacy of post-racialism. The play then segues into a series of sketches that delve further into stereotypical Black caricatures: the drug dealer, the hyper-religious church lady, the dancer, the convict and the dude on the block who is always going on about “F*ck school man. I just wanna be a rapper.” Streater, Jordan Barbour, Jennings, Prentice Onayemi and Amelia Workman perform in a hilarious, deadpan style.
In the second section of the production, preconceived notions about both racial stereotypes and the audience are truly thrown on their heads. The actors all gather for a party on-stage. Through their interactions and the devolution of the party (Streater’s character has a depressive episode), we realize that not all of the “characters” onstage are necessarily “Black,” even if the actors playing them are. Prentice eloquently calls this “designating self by designating other,” and the audience is meant to struggle to decide who this “other” actually is. What is the race of the group of characters? Are they white, Black?
The beauty, ingenuity and intelligence of The Shipment is that the play is truly meant to be experienced and viewed differently by every person in the room. Each audience member brings their own preconceived notions about race and racism to the performance and those thoughts and feelings can be perceived throughout. “This show was not meant to be a painting on the wall that the audience sits and consumes,” said Jennings. The play was entertaining and extremely thought provoking, but the show, for me, was in the audience. What did they laugh at? What made them squirm? Would they get angry? Riffs on bestiality and pedophilia were met with stone cold silence while Black stereotypes were met with raucous laughter; when Streater turned the microscope on white people, all that could be heard were nervous chuckles.
One of the (many) problems for the Black community in North America is that we are rarely the ones telling our tales. Non-Black directors, writers and screenwriters produce and narrate our stories further rendering the Black community voiceless. There is power in the story and storytelling, but with the exception of a small handful of film producers – namely Spike Lee, John Singleton and modern day minstreler Tyler Perry – we just aren’t telling ‘em. The Shipment was enjoyable and dialogue about race and racism is great, but I’m still not sure how I feel about the Inception-like Korean-telling-white-people-all-about-Black-people storytelling.
THE SHIPMENT runs until Saturday, May 12, at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre.