“If you can’t see the thin air, then why the hell should you care?” A verse in a song performed by three actors in The Shipment, this line strikes all of us who consider ourselves conscious of the racial stereotypes and stigmas in society today. Written by Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee and performed last week at the ’62 Center’s MainStage by five talented black actors, The Shipment uses (at times dangerous) humor and visuals to express concerns surrounding cultural constructions of black identity and stereotypes. Underneath such “thin air” – or a façade of upbeat entertainment – was the heart-wrenching honesty that constantly crept up to the surface, reminding us of what the play is truly presenting: difficulties actors experience daily which they cannot help but associate with the stereotype of their racial identity.
The show began with two dancers (Prentice Onayemi and Mikéah Ernest Jennings), one in a black tuxedo and the other in a black suit, dancing in robotic, jerky, tap-like fashion on a bare stage. The scene appeared as though it were a television box with the performers spotlighted against the darkness of the stage. The occasional smiles of the performers, combined with their spasmodic dance routines, were undeniably reminiscent of minstrel shows but not “typical” enough to fit the performance into a specific genre. Such uncertainty forced the audience to struggle in order to resolve our contradictory threads of thoughts: “Is this what I think it is, or am I a bad person to think that way?”
In the following act, the sense of self-condemnation seemed to be alleviated with the appearance of a stand-up comedian. The feeling of relief proved to be temporal as the audience soon faced a monologue full of crude jokes on sex (including both incest and zoophilia), excreta (“there ain’t nothin’ funnier to me than poop”) and of course, race, antagonizing white and black people alike. The chain of provocation and humor traveled back and forth between offensive and too offensive, like a well-spiced curry that you can barely tolerate enough to finish the whole plate. The sweet drink on your table would be analogous to the occasional “releases” during which you laugh and forget about the churning feelings in your stomach – only for a moment, though, before you become conscious of your laughter and the people around you.
Following this was a series of sketches of Rapper Omar (Aundré Chin), a boy who aspires to be a rap singer. From a naïve and innocent adolescent, Omar’s life is shaped by characters appearing in the sketches: a friend who is killed in a drive-by shooting, a drug dealer who lures him into selling drugs and a prison cellmate who urges him to rap about killing white people. The characters in the sketches were completely deadpan and sound strangely innocent with empty enthusiasm, resembling the characters from the television series South Park. This flatness effectively enhanced the clichéd representation of “gangsta” culture, as well as bringing the commodification of that lifestyle to light.
Before the end of the segment, the actors up on stage turned to the audience and the house light turned on, followed by excruciatingly long, silent stares from the actors to the audience. This silence was by far the most intimidating moment of the show. It was as if the agency of the show was suddenly handed to the audience. It had the effect of forcing us to reflect upon the last hour and connect to our thoughts, however disturbing or incoherent they might have been. The aforementioned verse, performed beautifully by Chin, Onayemi and Amelia Workman, had a soothing effect which gave room for the audience to smooth out their thoughts before turning to the next segment.
The final segment of the show featured Omar again, but it was clear from the start that this was a different Rapper Omar from before. He was now the “neurotic cake decorator with an eating disorder,” as Jennings, who played Omar in this segment, commented in the Q&A session afterwards. This segment, a realistic act of a rather awkward party, began in an affluent-looking living room with leather sofas and a cart of drinks. Throughout the play, the audience is struck by the stark contrast between the characters from the previous segments; the characters no longer act the black stereotype as they did before.
The party is hosted by Thomas (Douglas Scott Streater) who is, according to attendee Thomasina (Workman), her most social and happy friend. But here he certainly doesn’t seem that way: He forces his unwilling friends to drink and spills their most humiliating secrets, then claims that he has poisoned everyone’s drinks (including his own). Eventually, Thomas confesses that he has been lying and everyone decides to leave. In desperation, he breaks down on the floor before they can go and starts lamenting about his prolonged lack of a romantic relationship. As his talk of misery continues, it becomes clear that this rash claim was his manifestation of loneliness and and a desire for company.
Although this naturalistic, seemingly “normal” part of the show does not confront the issue of racial stereotypes directly, it tackles the issue indirectly by eliminating any indications of “blackness” in the performance. Lee’s tactic proves to be effective as the play hits its abrupt end with a forceful twist that cleverly brings the audience back to the original question – how does race affect our involvement and social perception in society?
The Shipment lacks a concrete moral in the sense that it does not necessarily call for a huge uprising or a group demonstration. Yet it does condemn inaction and call for inner metacognition from each individual audience member. The audience’s journey through the play is a mixture of laughter and unsettling feelings. Discomfort is central to Young Jean’s unique policy as a playwright. “When starting a play,” she writes in her artistic statement on her theater company’s website, “I ask myself, ‘What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?’ Then I force myself to write it. I do this because I’ve found that the best way to make theater that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable.”