Korean-American playwright and provocateur Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment begins with a minstrel routine. The two dancers in Crowded Fire's excellent production, played by William Hartfield and a riotously funny Nican Robinson, aren’t that good. Or they might be good at being bad. It's hard to tell.
But when they collapse on the floor in exhaustion, you think maybe "good" and "bad" aren’t what Lee’s after. The beauty of the opening is that it doesn’t catch us off-guard, so much as hint at what we’ve always known. Here is the cost of America’s racial drama: two exhausted African-American men, sprawled on stage and staring into space.
And so we're off and running with The Shipment, a work that's part minstrel show and part drawing-room social satire. Lee, a rising star in the American theater and the foremost practitioner of great bad writing, loves faulty thinking and barren aesthetics. In our country's ongoing racial psycho-drama, she has an abundance of available material. Careful never to fall into the trap of the exposé -- the "oh my God, if we had only known" surprise of white liberal outrage -- Lee chooses to embrace the methodical, frantic pace of the variety show with this work. The question becomes not what the show is about, but rather the ease with which we miss all the human pain that produces it.
When an obscene nightclub comic (played by Howard Johnson channeling Chris Rock) takes the stage, his over-the-top offensiveness is so uninspired it comes off as sweet. Yet, like the minstrels before him, his show is a ruse. What matters is the performance of the performance. Not what he says, but what it takes to say what he says. Who is the man behind the act? How does he do it night after night? And, most importantly, at what cost?
The Shipment reaches a dizzying high in stripping bare that question in the next “act” of the show when the cast performs the tale of “Omar the Rapper.” The winding narrative follows the fortunes of a young man (an effervescent Michael Wayne Turner III) who dreams of fame, loses his best friend “Sidekick Michael” to a drive-by shooting, falls in with “Drug Dealer Desmond,” ends up in jail, picks up a spiritual mentor, meets a record producer, becomes famous and then miserable, and finally finds true guidance from his dead grandmother.
Even moreso than the exhausted dance of the minstrels and faux outrage of the shock comic, the actual content of “Omar the Rapper,” as presented, is empty of meaning. The actors that animate them, though, are striking. The cast sloughs off and races through the lines with an off-handed aplomb, in a startling mixture of skill and boredom. As Omar’s rise and fall becomes more and more ridiculous, we start to pay attention to the only meaningful thing on stage -- the performances.
Not the performances of the actual cast -- who are all terrific -- but the performances of the shadow cast, the fictional actors who take on these ridiculous, iconic roles: the black minstrels, the black comic, the black rapper, the black grandmother, the gay black hairdresser, the black gangster. Are they the puppet masters or the puppets? No matter how arresting the action is on stage, Lee keeps reminding us that the real action is off to the side.
One might say that somewhere off stage there are human beings striving for hope and dignity. But under Lee’s relentless assault on racial conventions, even dignity is a game, as the cast comes out, stares at the audience for an uncomfortable amount of time, and launches into a spiritually tinged, a cappella rendition of Modest Mouse’s “Dark Center of the Universe.”
Hearing white indie-rock sensitivity mixed with a we-shall-overcome African-American aesthetic makes for a sharp primer on the limitations of dignity and bearing witness. The lyrics from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock are not only bad -- “I might disintegrate into thin air if you’d like / I’m the dark center of the universe you thought" -- but they're also leaden as an anthem. Lee takes us to the damaged end of protest and forces us to see that it’s as hollow a commodity as an obscene joke, ghetto melodrama, or razzle-dazzle minstrel show. It’s a relief when two white male stagehands, bored and lifeless, come out to change the set for the last scene.
When the play continues, something strange has happened. We’re watching the same cast, but they’ve somehow unburdened themselves of race. We're at a dinner party in a swanky apartment and everyone is pretty and swell. It's the kind of scene Noël Coward would have enjoyed. This is what black life would look like if black life didn’t matter; if it were, say, exactly like white life. There’s still drama -- drugs, suicide, murder -- but it's devoid of sting and significance.
Is this freedom? It qualifies as a version of freedom, I guess. By the play's conclusion, Lee makes sure that we understand that it is. Without ruining the ending, I'll just say that it's a stage trick worthy of the complement: somewhat magical, and a smart end to Lee's vicious and entertaining smackdown of all our precious conventions.
'The Shipment' runs through Saturday, Oct. 15, at The Thick House in San Francisco. For tickets and information, click here.