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.