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A Shipment of Questions

I just came into contact with the script for Young Jean Lee’s Lear.  The play, for those unfamiliar with it, begin as a loose adaptation of King Lear that loosens and loosens until the very idea of theatre is questioned, actors leave the stage for prolonged periods of time, and a Sesame Street episode is reenacted.

It is an amazing piece of work.

That in mind, I finally went over to ontheboards.tv in order to purchase/watch The Shipment, an earlier piece by Lee that I had heard things about and never fully experienced.  I am still recovering, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The first thing that greets the audience of The Shipment is penetrating blackness.  There is no initial set, and the black stage is completely bare.  Two actors (the entire cast is of color) then enter in formal tuxedo blacks and dance to a song by the late nineties rock band Semisonic.  The actors do not speak, and they dance for the duration of the song.

Immediately I found myself wondering what was going on.  Without voices, the men just smile and dance for minutes.  I realized a couple of minutes through that the effect was essentially modern-day minstrelsy– black men singing and dancing to entertain a white audience.  The clever thing about Lee’s writing is that the show does not directly tell the audience any of this.  There are going to be people who see this opening and think nothing of it beyond being a lighthearted entertainment number, and that is the point.  Even as I realized what was going on, I found to my own horror that I was still entertained.  What did that even mean?

As the play winds around its literally disconnected but thematically whole structure, it always does the same thing: it puts the audience into an disorienting experience and then demands the audience to ask of itself: ‘What does this mean?’  Lee is not pushing an agenda on an audience but inviting them to consider their own predispositions about and towards race.  

She does so in five movements: five distinct experiences that take social expectations of African-Americans, most in a literal world of blackness.  The lighting is sparse, and until the final movement there is no set whatsoever.

The second movement features an African-American stand-up comedy routine, akin to Chris Rock.  What Lee does to that scenario, however, is raise the stakes.  After telling a series of profane jokes that each get laughs from the recorded audience, the actor playing the comedian begins to intersperse his jokes with truthful rants about living as a black man.  The expectation is that a comedian will be profane but will source jokes from truthful, human behavior.  Lee’s writing veers the comedian further off his path, as he alternates shouting taboo or distasteful reality and calmly restating the same things as jokes. He shatters the illusion and jumps back into it to shatter it again, refusing to stay in a mode the audience wants and can mindlessly understand.

The stakes rise higher and higher until the recorded audience is silent, and the situation escalates.  Brilliantly, Lee pushes observational comedy beyond levels at which it is funny or okay, and the resulting question the scenario asks is ‘how true can you be about life?’  How true do you as an audience really want the comedian to be?  More pressingly, is the truth funny? At all?

At the end, he comes back and shocks us one last time– with a statement of raw humanity that for me was shamefully unexpected.

Comedy guts us in the next movement as well, when a remarkably detailed and mechanical tale occurs: a kid wants to become a rap star, is witness to a drive-by (presented so cartoonishly and inhumanely that it got a laugh), sells drugs once, goes to prison, becomes a rap star, gets addicted to drugs, and begins to want his own downfall.  The actors act with strained approximations of emotion; the concern here is wisely not the truth of the moments, but the artifice of them.  Characters are continually doubled and tripled, and exaggerated stances and voices distinguish the caricatures that make up the story.  The bad acting is provocative, turning a rather serious story into a weirdly familiar comedy.

The story has been told so many times that it loses its meaning, even as its being told.  Why is this funny?  Moreover, what does it say that this is the expectation of high-school-aged African American, and that that story is so familiar it’s funny?

Or that we have stereotypes of Southern grandmothers and desperate crack addicts and that THAT is funny?

After an interlude– an acapella performance of a Modest Mouse song about isolationism– we see our first glimpse of whiteness on-stage.  Very visible stagehands wearing regular clothes and not stage blacks slowly and meticulously set up a scene for a dinner party.  Their presence is needed to bring opulence, furniture, and props to the stage.  The choice feels uncomfortable, which is why I’m reasonably sure Lee did it intentionally.  What does it mean that white people have to bring the idea of wealth and luxury into this play?

This final movement crystallizes The Shipment.  Characters re-appear in a dinner party scene, the actors in the same clothes as before and performing the same general types of characters.  In this world, however, they are completely transformed.  Their diction changes, their stances change, their concerns change.  Even the drug abusers move up to higher-class drugs– cocaine is done off-stage.

What has happened (made explicit in an amazing closing two lines that I will not spoil here) is that the blackness of the performers has yet again been affected by outside pressures.  Here, in a setting of power and luxury, they assimilate into the space by becoming more white.

I have fixated on plot too much, probably, but doing that here mirrors the experience of the show.  You grapple with the plot because it’s the most regular thing you can see.  The undercurrents are where the meaning and painful self-examination occur.

This is a direct result of the staging of the play.  The space of the theatre doesn’t change much, and the performers’ characters don’t either.  As a result, it’s the audience experience that metamorphs repeatedly, and by process of elimination it cannot be ignored.

The play expertly conjures scenarios that lead to surface judgments and calls the audience out for it.  The audience is thus as much a part of the show as the actors; they are the ones bringing their baggage to the world of the play, and the result is uncomfortable.

Race is not a solvable problem, and Lee doesn’t try to make it one.  Thank god.  The closest she gets to an amplifiable statement is in the comedian’s rant, when the comedian says (and I am paraphrasing) that when people bring expectations and judgments to him based on his race, that they should note it, apologize, and aim to do better.  Aiming to do better is vital to this piece.

It’s hard to be critical with this piece.  I probably am not being critical enough, actually.  I think that’s because the power of the piece is its ability to personally affect a viewer.  It makes an impact that is so subjective and personal that to generalize or predict its effects, or to try to label or boil down the work is to be the kind of reductive thinker that is an idiot about race to begin with.

Watching this play hurts.  It’s medical discomfort that Lee is prescribing in The Shipment.  It’s also necessary.  Lee is not trying to heal you with the piece.  She’s trying to make you figure out if you’re hurt in the first place, so you can do what you have to do to make it better.

One comment on “A Shipment of Questions

  1. So glad you watched The Shipment, Matt! I really love how Lee is able to question the assumptions of even the most left wing, forward thinking audience members. She is pretty amazing!

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