Shock Theatre

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

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.  

Meanwhile, Lee offers a host of cues that the all-black cast is now playing white characters—crack becomes coke; they’re Ivy League grads—though she withholds confirming the fact until the scene’s final lines. Whether you see it coming or not, the point is made compellingly: Race, and the way American society views it, remains as constructed today as it was during the days of unabashed minstrel. 

It’s notable that Lee is not black, but Korean American. A daughter of academia, she was on the road to becoming a scholar herself when she dropped her studies, moved to New York City and started writing plays. She’s made previous splashes with works delving into religion and her own Asian-American identity. So where does she get off wading into black identity through a faux minstrel show? After all, even Spike Lee was considered daring when he went there. 

“All the way through—from the workshops, to our opening in Ohio, to this entire New York run—there hasn’t been a single person who’s asked me that question,” says Lee, who answers by saying she wanted an impossible challenge. “Which is shocking. Because when I started I was like, that’s going to be the biggest problem.” 

Maybe edgy, cross-racial commentary seems normal in a world where a black man can be president. Perhaps we’re all just that articulate about race these days. Could be. But a piece of feedback Lee says she has heard most often suggests otherwise.  

“White people come to see the show and they say, ‘Oh, I was disappointed because I wanted to leave the show feeling really bad about being white and the show didn’t succeed in doing that,’” explains Lee, who remains baffled by the critique. “It’s just yucky that they wanted that in the first place. And then that they projected that onto the show, that it was something the show was supposed to do?” 

Icky, indeed. But that might be just what a post-race America looks like: White theatergoers turning to a Korean-American artist’s black-identity farce in hopes of getting a guilt fix.

Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.