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Review: 'The Shipment' at the Undermain

by Jerome Weeks 10 Jun 2011 4:21 PM

It’s the revenge of the minstrel show. At the Undermain, Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment” is a brilliantly assaultive comic vaudeville about race relations. As a hilarious attack on the pop-culture images of African-Americans, “The Shipment” hits a lot of targets — rap videos, edgy stand-up comics — but ultimately loses itself in the smoke.


The Shipment is playwright Young Jean Lee’s raucous provocation on race, as hilarious and blistering as a Dave Chappelle comic sketch. And like Dave Chappelle’s TV series, Lee’s show eventually loses focus.

The Undermain Theatre generally hasn’t handled race relations much. And when it has, it’s been done obliquely, not through the well-intentioned, realistic “message drama” — all those Amen Corners and Good Negroes and Lost in the Stars.  Instead, dense, ironic language and arcane symbols have been the company’s tools — as in Suzan Lori-Park’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom or Erik Ehn’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

So The Shipment is a head-snapping departure; it’s an assaultive comic vaudeville, the revenge of the minstrel show. This is actually something (a handful of writers from) each generation seems to seek — a scathingly funny attack on the pop-culture images of African-Americans. They torch the baggage we’ve been saddled with from previous generations. George C. Wolfe did this in 1987 with The Colored Museum — most famously satirizing A Raisin in the Sun with “The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch-Play.”  So did such hiphop film parodies as CB4 and Fear of a Black Hat. For her part, Young Jean Lee — remarkably, a Korean-American woman — takes on “edgy” black comedians, hip-hop and drug-gang movies, rap videos and a black-bourgeoisie drawing-room comedy. But her humor is more destabilizing than Wolfe’s, more so than any contemporary writer’s other than Lori-Park’s.

The opening act, a dance duo, sets up Lee’s double-barreled tactic (and dilemma). Dancer 1 (Christopher Piper – above) is happily hoofing it through Semisonic’s “F. N. T”, while Dancer 2 (Adam Anderson) stands apart, clearly appalled by his partner’s blackface performance. Eventually, #2 can’t escape joining in — either because he’s determined to top #1 or he just gets caught up in the physical joy of it.  Lanky-and-nervous-limbed, Anderson is a goggle-eyed head bobbing on a stick — the perfect, Mutt-and-Jeff foil for the chunkier, vigorous Piper.

But throughout their dance, Anderson and Piper glance at each other, trying to follow each other’s lead, worrying about, well, what exactly are we doing here? Are we pandering to the audience? Are we spoofing all this “jazz hands” shtick? Or — at some moments — do we actually take on the great traditions of the Nicholas Brothers and Slim and Slam?

We in the audience respond eagerly to the happy showboating that choreographer Millicent Johnnie has given the pair, having them dance off the back wall and whirl each other around. But as much fun as this is, there’s a trickle of uneasiness, an uncertainty about who’s being mocked. Are we being set up — being led to cheer what amounts to a high-energy minstrel show?

Unease and uncertainty? Is that all? The next act, a ferociously foul-mouthed comic (Akron Watson, above) would howl at such a plight.  White people whining. What the hell — black people are uneasy every day. Get used to it.

Modeled on everyone from Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor to Bernie Mac, this stand-up goes straight over the top into jokes about fecal matter and killing babies. But Watson keeps us off-guard with how ingratiating and upfront he seems. As the condescending line goes, such a nice man — and so well-spoken. Watson can switch on the threat or the smile with equal ease. Given Lee’s cross-cutting material, it’s a remarkably assured performance:

Now, I know some a you thinkin’, Why do black comedians still do those “White people are like this, black people are like that” jokes? Well, I’ll tell you why. I don’t mind to be offensive by sayin’ this but … white people be evil. (Gives the audience a deadly serious look.) Naw, I’m just playin’ wit’ chall! Most white folks ain’t evil—they just stupid.

Again, we’re never sure, How much is he messing with us? Or how much is Lee subverting him, mocking his calculated “I don’t mind to be offensive” nonsense? He uses the line repeatedly to jump into something even worse. Comic ploy or bitter trap?

Adam A. Anderson, Christopher Piper, Akron Watson, Beverly Johnson and David Jeremiah in The Shipment

What may be The Shipment’s high point is what follows, a deadpan retelling of a ’90s-era, hip-hop-gangsta, blaxploitation movie. Our anti-hero (David Jeremiah) goes from rapstar-wannabe to coke dealer to jail cell to prison redemption, meeting such characters as Crackhead John, Video Ho (Beverly Johnson) and Paul the Extreme — with everything seemingly purloined from Menace II Society and Malcolm X,  But the actors perform much of it as if they’re gullible grade-schoolers (“I don’t wanna sell the drugs.” “You must.” “OK.”)

By the end, all these whipsawing ironies can feel less like a tactic and more like a muddle. Particularly with the cocktail-party comedy that follows. Here, Jeremiah really comes into his own, playing Thomas, the young bachelor host, as if he were Isaiah Mustafa, the tongue-in-cheek, overbearing hunk from the Old Spice commercials (“Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back to your man. Now back to me.”) Thomas is smug, charming and manipulative but there’s also something seriously wrong with him — and as his friends and co-workers arrive, whatever’s wrong gets weird and worse.

The Shipment‘s final flip-flop irony — in which we’re tasked to reconsider everything that’s come before — seems facile, more a way to wrap things up than truly put a period on a complete thought. What manages to contain and focus much of the show’s scattershot firepower is the notable precision that director Stan Wojewodski Jr. and his cast bring to it. All the bitter obscenities and rapid-fire jokes could easily spill out and feel indulgent or inconclusive (sooner than they do). But the entire Undermain production is so crisp and, for all of the play’s simmering doubts and angers, beautifully restrained — from the fine, courageous cast and Rachel Finn’s minimalist set to Steve Woods’ lighting design (right down to the old-style footlights).

For her part, Lee plainly wants to leave us discomfited, not consoled or enlightened. But I think most sensible Americans already are discomfited by race. It’s people with easy, comforting answers who are dangerous and so very appealing, offering us an end to our embarrassments and grievances.

Yet bringing whatever clarity an artist can to our tortured racial history is not the same thing as providing easy comfort. At the Undermain, we get laughs, yes, and provocations, definitely. But clarity — for all Lee’s laser-sharp humor — clarity is not included in this shipment.

  • ToscasKiss

    I think the line is “I don’t MEAN to be offensive….” Interesting, excellently performed show. However, that final ‘flip’ gave me the impression I was meant to be shocked, or thrown or something, but it was more like, “Yeah, and?” Like the playwright made assumptions about my thought process or attitude, and those assumptions were mostly wrong. But I’m glad to have seen this–really well done and thought-provoking. Young Jean Lee wrote one of my great favorite Undermain plays, THE APPEAL. Great stuff.