Shock Theatre

A Korean-American director forces an uncomfortable examination of stereotypes in 'post-racial' America.

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There’s already a dangerously thin line between parody and minstrelsy; just ask Dave Chappelle. But Young Jean Lee isn’t afraid to walk it. The brilliant, young director and playwright has taken great pleasure in obscuring the line further—and she’s winning critical acclaim for doing so.  

Lee just closed a wildly successful New York City run of her sketch comedy, “The Shipment.” The show, which first opened in Columbus, Ohio, grabbed the January spotlight in New York’s theater scene by exploring just how much skin color continues to frame the way we see each other—even in a post-race, Barack Obama-electing America. It’s an early example of what will hopefully be an avalanche of smart, fearless work that brings the same fresh feel to the artistic conversation about race that is said to imbue today’s politics.  

“The Shipment” is best described bluntly: It’s a hilarious, racial mind-fuck. “For the whole first half of the show,” Lee explains, “the whole point of it is to induce as much racial paranoia and self-consciousness in the audience as possible.” And she largely succeeds.  

Lee structured the first half as a minstrel, America’s oldest art form. Nineteenth-century minstrels stuck to a formula, typically including a dance number, followed by a slapstick comedy bit and then a send-up of a popular drama—all performed by buffoons wallowing in racist stereotypes, of course. Lee recreates this setup, but relentlessly denies the audience its punch lines.  

The show opens with an eerily elegant dance duet, in which two young men mirror one another in a mélange of stereotyped black dances—everything from the old-school shuffle to more contemporary ass drops. A brash, foul-mouth stand-up comic follows, seemingly lost on his way to Def Comedy Jam. Then there’s a painfully familiar after-school special set in the ’hood, complete with a long-suffering mom, an aspiring rapper who gets sucked into the drug trade, a gangsta-rap record exec who scoops him up and puts him in booty videos—you get the idea. 

But all of this is delivered off-key; nothing’s quite right. The action all takes place on a stripped-down, black box stage. The actors are dressed in evening wear and are irresistibly attractive. The dramatic skit is performed with absurdly robotic motions and monotone voices. The stand-up comic is more combative than funny, and he opens the bit by name checking the most yuppie hood in Brooklyn—“I’m a Park Slope nigga, born-n-bred!” You don’t quite know what to make of it all.  

The device is in part a practical one: When casting for the play, Lee—who picks her cast first, then works with them to flesh out a script—asked actors to perform black stereotypes. She cringed at the way everyone in the room responded. “Whenever they just sank into the stereotype, we would all just burst out laughing with this kind of—relief,” she recalls. “It was really gross. So we were like, OK, we can’t ever let the actors do that. They can never fully sink into it.” 

Which puts an awkward undertow on what should be madcap comedy. That’s Lee’s broader goal: to scramble the audience’s racial cues enough so that we’re on edge, and perhaps a little too self-aware of how we’re reacting to the stereotypes as they unfold. (Or even how we’re reacting to what the lady sitting a couple seats over is doing.)  

This vibe contrasts starkly, however, with that of the show’s final, longest bit. After a slow, painstaking set change, the actors reappear as fully fleshed out, relatable characters. They attend a cocktail party with events that are more bizarre than anything that’s come beforehand. But because the characters have been made whole, they remain human. Many of their flaws—which we’re now free to laugh at in earnest—mirror behaviors that, in the first half of the show, felt more like pathologies. Their drug use, their self-defeating flashes of anger, their fatalism—suddenly these are all resonant life challenges, hilarious in their familiarity.