This weekend I trudged over to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art for a performance of "The Shipment," followed by a discussion with the cast and Young Jean Lee, the play’s writer and director. "The Shipment" had its debut at the Wexner in Columbus nearly two years ago, moved on to New York for a run, and has since been touring, though this seems to have been its first Boston staging. Lee, who is Korean American, says she came to the project via her usual approach of asking herself what sort of play she would least want to have to write. The answer, this time, was a play about African American identity politics. And who could blame her? It’s a topic that is so delicate, and a project so inherently fraught, that I won’t even dare reach for a metaphor to describe the challenge. I’ll just say this: Young Jean Lee’s got chutzpah.
"The Shipment" is a challenging piece. It’s essentially a variety show, featuring five African American actors juggling stereotypes and preying on perceptions. The opening number has two smiling, tuxedoed black men dancing to “Fascinating New Thing,” a pop song by the white-as-can-be Semisonic. The next section has a comedian in the Def Comedy Jam mold, profanely riffing on race and solidly stomping across the taste line for bits on incest and pedophilia, all while bemoaning the constraints of being a black man in comedy. "The Shipment" proceeds from there, but the first two sections clearly outline the territory to be covered: with their echoes of blackface minstrelsy, the dancers and the comic prepare the audience for a discomforting evening of race on stage.
Though "The Shipment" is a very smart play, its merits and achievements are entirely debatable – it feels like I’ve done nothing but debate them in the thirty-six hours since I saw it. The play is successful to the extent that it compels its audience members to critique their responses, and fails insofar as it lets them off the hook. To my eyes, too many people in the Boston museum crowd who’d blithely cackled during the play’s opening scenes were left without enough red on their faces when the houselights finally came back up.
As a theatrical event, the meaning of what’s happening on stage during "The Shipment" is entirely inseparable from what’s happening in the seats. The play is not self-contained commentary on race in America, and it's not a document that asks us to reckon just with our national past. Presented for a predominantly white audience, in a country with its first black president, the staging of "The Shipment" this Saturday night was not simply about blackface minstrelsy – it was on top of it. The two exist entirely in palimpsest.
Now, this blog is not often a space for theater reviews. But, throughout "The Shipment" and my processing of it, I’ve thought a lot about a brilliant book on blackface performance published by Harvard well before I came to town. In Raising Cain, W. T. Lhamon Jr. traces the evolving endurance of this sort of racial performance, “from Jim Crow to Hip Hop.” He brings back the concept of the “lore cycle,” which he’d developed in Deliberate Speed, his earlier text on American culture in the 1950s. To Lhamon, culture is transmitted through the cyclical repetition of practices, the passing down of these units of “lore.” Ideas, scenes, dance moves, motifs, and other layered memes are refitted through the years to match the changing circumstances, but the original meanings are never erased; rather, each new layer is merely compressed into the old, resulting in what Lhamon calls an “irresolvable compaction.” “What’s being transmitted is hardly any one thing,” Lhamon writes. “Culture transmits codes that are complex. People decode them differently.”
It’s the latent meanings inevitably carried over that make a performance like "The Shipment" so risky to stage and so compelling to watch. If you’ve seen and appreciated "The Shipment," I recommend checking out Lhamon. If you’ve read Raising Cain but not seen the play, it’s worth trying. And if they’re both new to you, track down the DVD, swing by the bookstore or library, and block yourself out a challenging weekend.