Playwright: Young Jean Lee
At: Red Tape Theatre, 4546 N. Western Ave. Tickets: redtapetheatre.org; free. Runs through: Oct. 3
Written by Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee, The Shipment is a minstrel show, but not on the level that one might expect. Minstrel shows traditionally had several elements: music, dancing, a "stump speech" (similar to stand-up comedy) and wrapped up at the end with a play.
Outside minstrelsy, audiences are allowed to entertain the thought that the talented folks on stage are better than us. The obsequious shuffling and self-effacing content of a minstrel show undercuts that authority, flipping the script by allowing the audience to feel superior to the performers.
Although minstrelsy has long faded into history, covertly the inverted audience/performer power dynamic still exists. When white, liberal audiences buy a ticket to a Black show, they expect to be educated and/or gently scolded, yet ultimately catered to. Wealthy arts patrons enjoy graciously reminding underprivileged actors exactly who pays the bills.
In The Shipment, the first act flips and body-slams that power dynamic. Marcus D. Moore delivers a jolly and blisteringly crude stand-up set, each joke more tasteless than the next. The punchlines are interspersed with an unvarnished critique of White America. Moore dares audience to leave if they don't like it.
There's nothing that liberals hate more than being perceived as not being able to take a joke. The Shipment's reverse psychology seals the deal forcing them to confront which is worse: raunchy jokes or their complicity in racism.
In The Shipment, the calculus of this moment falls short of being fully triumphant because several jokes traffic in the worst stereotypes of Black women (voiced by a Black man, written by an Asian woman). Lee is unaware of her own blind spot of privilege, She stages liberation on the back of Black female bodies.
The second act depicts the tale of a downtrodden Black kid who struggles to overcome ... well, I won't ruin it. Lee strips this stereotype bare, revealing our insatiable desire for poverty pornography. Director Wardell Julius Clark could stand to tighten this section up, yet scores some truly hilarious moments while trafficking in the clichÃƒ© of clichÃƒ©.
Act three is arguably the most powerful, sophisticated and effective. A stark a cappella song in three-part harmony delivers the thesis in the form of a threat. This not entertainment. It is is a promise.
This moment questions the ethics of a non-Black artist writing for Black actors. Lee has dumped gasoline on a fire that she will be able to watch rage out of control from a safe distance.
The fourth act is the most polished and developed, a bawdy play. Unfortunately this ending never had a chance of matching the savagery of the first act,, sapping the impact of the final lines, resulting in an ultimately structurally flawed show.
This final fourth showcases the considerable acting talents of the ensemble. Sheldon Brown grounds the madness with calm, understated energy and vulnerability, Eric Gerard keeps perfect pacing as the dynamic nexus, Marcus D. Moore and Kiayla Ryann shift between passive and passive-aggressive to exceptional effect, and Hunter Bryan is infintely watchable and charming. With a lesser cast, this show might have been unwatchable, yet the strength of this group elevates it to something compelling.
Ultimately The Shipment is avant-garde, messy, uneven and unfinisheda Trojan Horse, delivering savage bluntness and defiance instead of the usual safe messaging. It's an artistic confrontation that just might spill off of the stage.