THE BASICS: This five-player, all black ensemble piece by Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee premiered in NYC in 2009. It is currently playing weekends at the Torn Space Theater (Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Avenue) through March 13th. Dan Shanahan directs. The play runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: SHIPMENT is a patchwork satire, an “experimental” theater piece dealing with black identity issues and black/white stereotypes in present day America. Its major building blocks are an angry young black comic’s stand-up routine, a fractured fairy tale of a young black rapper getting sucked up into street drug culture, and a long party sequence where the actors all play at being white. Add in moments of song and dance, including some minstrel style stepping, and a scramble of people in Donald Trump masks and, well, you get the idea…
THE PLAY: A hodge-podge, by design. THE SHIPMENT’s dual aims, according to the playwright herself, are to elicit laughs and make the audience uncomfortable. I smiled wryly from time to time, but rarely laughed aloud, and the audience as a whole was pretty darn quiet. As for discomfort, that’s going to depend upon a lot of things, like your age, race, and the whole manner of your upbringing. There’s a lot here that could be called “in poor taste”, though none of it (even the comic’s plea for more brother-sister incest) made me frankly uneasy.
I smiled wryly from time to time, but rarely laughed aloud, and the audience as a whole was pretty darn quiet.
Poor unhip creature that I am, I found a lot of the material less than engaging. It doesn’t help that we are dealing entirely, and intentionally, with cardboard cut-outs. There are no through-characters, no one to root for. No interesting situations develop, and no one learns anything. If you are a fan of “the well-made play” (as I am), you may want to think twice about attending!
THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Now for the good news! The five performers—Peter Johnson, Dudney Joseph, Greg Howze, Danica Riddick, and Shabar Rouse—are a crack ensemble. They perform with real precision and great panache, making the experience as a whole just about as good as it possibly could be. My sense is that director Shanahan deserves a good deal of the credit; the company appears to have been really well-rehearsed! This production is a class act in every respect. Fine, bold architectural set, well lit. Graceful, formal style costumes, with humorous touches. And a lot of interesting music, including one strange original song, beautifully rendered, and some very punchy solo cello stuff (recorded).
IN SUM: Extremely fine work by Torn Space, but you can’t make a silk purse…
Photos: M. Thomas Duggan
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!