Young Jean Lee – “The Shipment” (2009)

In The Shipment, writer and director Young Jean Lee brilliantly addresses the issues of gender and race in today’s American society. It feels like a plea not to forget the past, which shows us that the United States were founded and evolved into what they are today by relying extensively on the institution of slavery of black people. Although their persecution started to fade once the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted, black people or mulatto people still face racial discrimination in our society, usually in the form of derogatory stereotypes. This issue, alongside gender stereotyping and prejudice are what constitutes Lee’s motivation in conceiving The Shipment. Structured in three major episodes or acts, unrelated to each other – reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s perspective on theater – the play focuses on deconstructing current stereotypes that are attached to people with black racial ancestry or women by vividly depicting them. The goal is that the audience experiences a shock of recognition, and subsequently understands that by engaging in those practices, they ultimately restrict their own social interaction. This aim is seemingly Aristotelian, however there is no catharsis. The Shipment feels more like a modern eclectic theater piece, which has probably been inspired by many of the theatrical theories we have discussed during this past semester.

The first episode of the play is opened by a dance piece, which is highly paradoxical. On a prop-less dark stage, a black actor starts dancing on the rhythms of an alternative rock band. The typical white music is intertwined with what Adrian Piper calls funk moves – typical black dance moves – and as such, the spectator is left confused with what is going to follow. The first dancer is joined by a second one, and together they engage in what seems to be a black social dance, if we were to use Thomas DeFrantz’s terminology. They perform for the entertainment of a primarily white audience, but through their movements they subversively express issues that are representative for the black community only. Similarly, when Douglas starts his stand-up comedy act, on the remnants of a hip-hop song used as a transition, he admits that he has been accused by his black friends of portraying stereotypes on stage for the entertainment of white people. But that is exactly what he wants to attract the audience’s attention to. He defends his position by saying that he is not looking for grand gestures of apology from white people for the centuries of abuse and discrimination, but rather that he is more interested in an acknowledgement that there is racism. Douglas equally mocks his black peers, as well as the whites; just there, one can find the essence of Lee’s piece – a sharing of the blame for this apparently unending cycle of discrimination. His language itself is stereotypical, and it often includes words that one may find offensive, such as: “motherfucker”, “bitch”, “cracker”, “nigger”, “shit” and so on.

The second episode deals with the story of Omar, a young man, who is used by Lee in order to portray almost all of the leftover stereotypes that society constructed around the figure of the black (wo)man. He wants to become a rapper, while his mother urges him to go to school in order to be a doctor someday. In the end, Omar’s mom concedes by stating the clichéd truth that we have all heard: “I’m proud of you for following your dreams.” The young man then undergoes the process of becoming an adult under the influence of his entourage, which is not necessarily good. He is presented with different ‘thug’ lifestyles usually associated with the black community: stealing, drug dealing, life in the street. Omar falls prey to the illusion of dealing drugs, because he thinks that it will be a straight path towards his career as a rapper, once he can earn enough money. However, he gets caught in the crossfire between his supplier – Desmond –  and a new comer on the market – Mama – which lands him in prison. Omar realizes the consequences of his actions – “You’re the evil one and I’m the good one. But now I’m evil too. High five!” – yet chooses not to take any kind of action. In prison, he is faced with Paul the Extreme, the typical intimidating inmate, to whom Omar instantly attaches the stereotype of homosexuality.  However, Paul turns out to be completely different than that, and they end up discussing the futility of the religion of the whites, by arguing how its system of politics is flawed because it allows one person to be in charge. Omar then meets Sashay, the gay hair stylist for his music video, who wants to convert him to homosexuality. At the same time, he is confronted with the offer of a woman who advertises her physical qualities (“big boobs”, “big booty”), and stays true to her materialistic nature. Omar has become a drug addict, as revealed by his mimicking of shooting drugs up his vein. At the end of the episode, he visits Desmond’s grave and decries his life: he is famous, but not happy; he has no friends; he lives just for sex and drugs. The closing of this second part takes the form of a song, which still resonates in my head: “Anyone can equally, easily, fuck you over.” And isn’t that the perfect summary for what happens to Omar?

The last episode takes the form of a dinner party, in which certain types of people gather together to celebrate the birthday of Thomas. Each one of them is the embodiment of a stereotype: the hypersensitive and paranoid Omar, the monosyllabic-answer-giver Desmond, the romantic Michael, and the reassuring Thomasina. They stumble awkwardly through the dinner, get excited about playing a game called ‘Library’, and become upset at Thomas’ attempt of a prank, Because they are all rather tipsy, they end up spilling up all of the secrets that they knew, which leads to Thomas’ breakdown, and the destabilization of all of their friendships. What complicates everything however is the ending, with Omar responding to their game of ‘Library’: “I am really uncomfortable. I don’t think we would be doing this if we had a black person in the room.” That ending took me by surprise because I was looking at black actors trying to embody stereotypes of how white people use gestures and movement, but it hadn’t yet registered for me that their characters were white. Again, this decision to work with both black and white body and language stereotypes speaks to me about a leveling of the blame for what caused the fracture between those two races.

In the end, I cannot but think about the night of the Creative Time Summit, when someone stated that black people have been responsible for starting the conversation every single time, and therefore issues about race should be discussed by white and white only. And I already replied to that that it is almost like arguing that you can have feminism without women. As if in reply to the Creative Time Summit’s predicament, The Shipment takes all of those questions, prejudices, biases on race or gender and places them center stage. It is then the responsibility of the audience to acknowledge the problems and attempt to find solutions for them. Because it is a theater piece, the advantage is conferred by the freedom of artistic expression, which prevents real consequences from affecting the actors who were involved in this beautiful and comprehensive and controversial moment of theater. It functions much like Dan Safer’s playground philosophy, in this context meaning that the actors are let to explore how the performativity of these serious issues – presented as a comedy – can work on their gendered and sexed bodies. And then, once performed, the idea is that the audience will be moved into an act of critical thought, which might help bind the community closer together through the realization that both gender and race are social constructs. It is literally us imposing constraints on ourselves, constraints that detract from community building and sharing of experiences. Therefore, the solution is simple: we should find the change in ourselves, and only then will we be able to pride ourselves in actually contributing to the bettering of the world.


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