Young Jean Lee’s new play includes a comic routine on the white fear of a black planet.
In the program notes for The Shipment, the playwright Young Jean Lee writes, “I’m obsessed with unsettling complacency … because I think that contradiction and uncertainty bring us closer to the truth than pat ideologies.” Mina Morita, the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater, adds “We’re excited to get unsettled with you.”
How much you get unsettled, and for how long, will depend upon the thickness of your skin, and its color.
The play begins with a dance to the Semisonic song “F.N.T.” A soloist is soon joined by another dancer. They move toward and then away from each other, circling and improvising steps inside of a disciplined choreography. It looks like they’re enjoying themselves in order to make a point. Does it have anything to do with the lyrics? “I’m surprised that you’ve never been told before / That you’re lovely and you’re perfect / And that somebody wants you.”
After the dancers leave the stage, a voice on the PA system announces the arrival of a stand-up comedian (Howard Johnson Jr.). This transition into his monologue indicates that The Shipment isn’t a play intent on providing answers. Instead, you quickly discover that Lee is shifting the narrative beneath your feet like a mischievous goddess of the earth. This sense of being off-balance is reflected in the physical movements of the actors and in the disruptive nature of the script itself.
The monologue for the comedian is meant to induce psychic tremors. His set ranges from children masturbating to fecal humor to killing babies. But the shock factor of those subjects is leavened when he starts to talk about race. The comedian, like the other four actors in the play, is black. The unsettling could begin when he says, “White people are stupid.” Or, later, when he changes the subject, “Now it’s time for me to go after some niggers.” His “routine,” which is completely scripted, includes one of the play’s major themes: white fear of a black planet.
The stage is scorched by the time he leaves it behind. When an absurdist comedy takes his place, you have to applaud Lee’s formal audacity. Johnson delivered the comedian’s lines as a direct address to the audience with a spontaneous sense of naturalism. It takes a few minutes for the tonal shift to sink in. The actors start to speak with a flattened affect, as if emotions didn’t exist. And they can’t exist in the cliché-driven plot they’re stuck in. A kid wants to be a rapper but he has to sell drugs to get by: violence ensues.
In addition to the change in line readings, the actors are also moving their bodies to some musical distortions only they can hear. They rock or bend or weave in place and are never still. A sense of abstraction settles in place. Once the rap story ends as expected, a trio appears center stage to sing an a cappella song called “Dark Center of the Universe.” But before they sing, they pause in silence to make eye contact with the audience. They seem to be taking everyone in. Part of the discomfiting spell of The Shipment is in this role reversal: the actors are the ones looking at and being critical of the audience.
This feels especially palpable in the last act. It’s constructed in the way that old-fashioned authors used to write ghost stories. The last line of the play upends everything we’ve been watching. Is that where the elusive “shipment” of the title locates itself, inside that final declarative sentence? This scene, again, brings up even more questions about racism and identity politics, and they remain, as predicted, unsettling and unanswered. To delve into those questions here would just spoil the experience.
The excellent cast held a unified vision and sense of purpose throughout. When the actors held hands for the curtain call and bowed together, The Shipment had conferred some sacred knowledge upon them — performing the play empowered them to the same degree it unsettled the audience. This production provides further confirmation that Young Jean Lee has the ability to conjure up a rude and thrilling magic, something that’s rare to witness.
The Shipment, through Oct. 15 at Crowded Fire Theater, 1695 18th St., 415-523-0034