Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment” orbits around minstrelsy: from the sometimes oversized suits, red and black accessories, it all revolves around black folx performing their blackness for whites. Haha, we laugh, it’s funny! It’s funny because they’re dumb, they’re different and they’re not white. It’s a fairly simplistic mechanic that Lee turns onto its head: spectator turns into performer as the ensemble turns to watch us, make us uncomfortable, burden us with the weight of entertaining. “White people aren’t evil,” says a stand-up comic (Marcus D. Moore) “They’re just stupid!”
I mean… yeah. What white people sacrifice for our guilt-strewn, #notallwhitepeople, “Well-I’m-Part-Of-The-Dominant-Race-So-Fuck-Your-Affirmative-Action” certainty marshmallow is an authentic reflection marshmallow that comes with a Better-Life-For-All-People-Yourself-Included marshmallow. Producing that reflection requires a balance though, between pressurized discomfort and authentic patience for yourself, which white people don’t have. We find our whiteness unbearabl; when confronted with it, we smudge the conversation by talking about color-blindness, the rhetorical blackface where all people are white, wearing something over it.
Here, in a show about characters and not people, yt-Me pushes that concept onto every story told. Each vignette (maybe not the right word, but a word reminiscent of what I need) addresses the historical blackfaces. James Baldwin told us that the Negro was the invention of the white man. “The Shipment” confronts us with our own inventions at every turn.
Directors Wardell Julius Clark and Sydney Charles have created an art object, that pushes us to our patience: are you willing to participate now? How about now? Will you listen even after we do this? We’re not here for your entertainment, we never were, and so the audience is reminded of this at every turn: racism is not funny and black people don’t exist for yts. While Moore’s comedian introduces most of the concepts the show references, he also knows his function and his own role-playing in it.
The finest moments in “The Shipment” ride the tension of hating the audience they’re playing for and knowing that they are communicating something vital: when a long (long, it is long) silence breaks out into “Dark Center of the Universe” and relieves us of the hypnotic awkwardness of not knowing what to do, it is bittersweet. “Yes, I do love Modest Mouse,” I thought, “Oh shit, they knew that I would love Modest Mouse.” And being taken care of makes you feel your own weaknesses and emptiness rising like bile in your throat.
Despite this technical brilliance at play and an ensemble worth of uncannily good performances, the core of “The Shipment” feels intellectual and borderline hollow. Jean Lee, in writing a play about representations, gave us the boogiemen without anybody underneath the mask. The exercise in discomfort anchors us in that hollowness, understanding it as part of ourselves without any interest in what we do afterwards with those holes. Walking away, you might have to look at yourself. But it would be easy to dismiss any rumination for the reasons that whites dismiss people of color: it wasn’t nice to us so why be nice to them?
A false corollary. Kindness, justice are their own necessities. In a country where theater and art must be synonymous with entertainment, “The Shipment” says “It comes at the cost you paid.” Entertainment traded for discomfort. Wisdom juxtaposed with ignorance. We traded our souls for the reduction of the other. Now, look at them. Look at us.
You can find tickets and dates for "The Shipment" here.