Forum Theater’s affecting rendition of Young Jean Lee’s polemical The Shipment doesn’t dance around the truth, but opts instead to rip the Band-Aid off the raw, tragic, funny, and bewildering dimensions of life in black America.
Playwright Young Jean Lee has never been one to shy away from controversial, racially-charged issues, counting works like the politically incorrect, Asian stereotype-reversing Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven among her most prominent successes. With The Shipment, she deconstructs modern perceptions of black America through a mixture of postmodernism and 19th-20th century minstrel show, which relied on blackface and reductive stereotypes. Her goal: to make the audience uncomfortable enough to realize that perhaps we haven’t progressed as far in the past 100 or so years as we think.
As in a typical minstrel show, the first section of Forum’s production sends the cast through a broad musical/dance number. Only here, minstrel standards are swapped for a punk rock soundtrack and Tony Thomas II’s graceful choreography.
The scene avoids obvious messages or symbolism, relying instead on the subtext of the lyrics and the visual of a black cast dancing to punk music to nudge the door open on popular stereotypes of culture and musical tastes. Stage vet Dexter Hamlett plays the affable ringleader, marshalling his performers and even an occasional audience member with charm and panache.
The second section of the minstrel show offers a critical stump speech, interpreted here as a raw stand-up routine like you’ve never seen. The magnetic Darius McCall launches into a standard comedy set on black culture vs. white culture, reminiscent of the best of Chris Rock and Katt Williams, before veering off into raunchy, existential musings. The bit blends standard tropes with intensely personal non-sequiturs where McCall confesses to hidden desires many people consider “taboo”, ostensibly to shock the audience out of its expectations of black comedy. These moments are often inscrutable and uncomfortable, but not necessarily in a revelatory way; mostly, they’re just plain odd. Still, there’s enough solid material, both funny and damning, to keep the audience plugged in.
The engrossing third section takes the audience on a heartbreaking, postmodern journey that deconstructs modern black stereotypes. Gary L. Perkins III plays a young black man trying to escape his troubled city life and make it big in the rap game; along the way he meets a host of caricatures blending minstrel templates with modern cultural archetypes. Warring drug dealers, proselytizing inmates, and corrupt music producers all offer him counsel and assistance on his way to the top, revealing unexpected insecurities and emotions. Props designer Kevin Laughon cleverly distills overused touchstones into cheeky signs that complement the characters’ darkly funny pantomime. The section ends with an affecting, if not slightly puzzling a cappella number about hopelessness and finding one’s way in the world.
May 21 – June 13
Forum Theatre at
Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $30 – $35 reserved or Pay What You Want at the door
The final section of The Shipment gives the cast a wider berth to flex their acting muscles. At an apartment party hosted by McCall’s character Thomas, the cast revels in a complex range of hopes, dreams, and nuances denied them previously. Mark Hairston shines as a neurotic introvert struggling to deal with a room full of strangers; his hilarious frankness and facial expressions tell their own story as the party spirals out of control. The section, and the play, ends with a shocking twist – on par with Shyamalan’s best – that makes the audience reexamine their assumptions all over again.
It’s a perfect ending to an imperfect but nonetheless arresting production. Even as the show stumbles over some uneven dialogue and setups (postmodernism and racial humor are a tricky balancing act), director Psalmayene 24’s steady hand always rights the ship. The Shipment offers a timely meditation on the American experience, with enough piercing commentary, humor, and weirdness to keep you thinking long after you exit the theater.
The Shipment by Young Jean Lee . Directed by Psalmayene 24 . Featuring Shannon Dorsey, Mark Hairston, Dexter Hamlett, Darius McCall and Gary L. Perkins III . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers.