Young Jean Lee’s powerful and powerfully intimate play “The Shipment” is packed with angles, anger and comedic observation – so packed that it requires a nimble cast to deliver on its promise of meaningful provocation.
Torn Space Theater and director Dan Shanahan found that cast. Together, Peter Johnson, Dudney Joseph, Greg Howze, Danica Riddick and Shabar Rouse expand the racial stereotypes that Lee challenges until they explode. Choreography is by Alexia Buono.
Even for an opening night, the production at the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle showed deft timing and execution, all designed to create in the audience a certain level of discomfort and, hopefully, introspection, along with enough comic relief to keep it from turning away.
“The Shipment” is structured as a series of packages. The audience reaches its seats by walking through Kristina Siegel’s set, welcomed by Rouse at the door and passing by the other players as they lounge silently in formal wear on the bare-bones set.
The silence doesn’t last. The show opens with Lee’s version of a modern-day minstrel show, with Howze and Joseph dancing an electronic robot, big-eyed, palm-flashing nonthreatening over-the-top welcome.
In a bit of theatrical whiplash, the smiling dancers are followed by “stand-up comic” P. Johnson, whose profane monologue is squirm-inducing in both its language and its racial “truth telling.” Laughing at his own XXX-rated remarks, the comic’s underlying outrage burns through as he banters away.
“Why do black comics always do those ‘black people are like this’ jokes and ‘white people are like this’ jokes?,” he asks in one of the few lines that can be printed here, unmasking the appeal of the kind of cross-over comedians found on HBO and sports arenas around America.
Lee then takes the monologue beyond the realm of making fun of everyone to a ridiculous and raunchy conclusion, with Johnson defiantly daring the audience to laugh.
Johnson makes his exit and then we meet a different kind of black stereotype, that of the academic striver who will overcome the odds no matter how high they are stacked against him. Howze plays Omar, the perfect foil to a hardworking grandma who wants him to be a doctor and to the fast-talking drug dealer who wants him on his crew.
The rest of the cast sends up their stock characters with a deliberately feigned acceptance of the cardboard-cutout roles and wooden dialogue they are expected to repeat.
“You’re the evil one and I’m the good one,” Omar/Howze explains to the drug dealer. “But now I’m evil too because I sold drugs.”
“If you don’t shoot people they won’t respect you.”
“I need to learn more about the streets.”
“Crack is bad.”
“I don’t care. Like it.”
Rat-a-tat-tat. Are we there yet?
Other characters are a flamingly gay hairdresser named Sashay (Joseph has fun with this part); Grandma in heaven, and the unhappy rap star who realizes that a life full of bling, drugs and meaningless sex can be boring.
Lee’s play premiered about eight years ago, when the country was electing its first black president and was going to leave racial divisions behind.
Modern politics gets a nod in this show – let’s say it rears its ugly head for a few minutes – before the final set-piece at a cocktail party at which no one really wants a cocktail.
Conversation veers from the virtues of putting olive oil on toast to a possible mass murder, none of which compares to the banality of the final game that unmasks the characters for what they really are.
Sign here, please.
4 stars (out of four)
What: “The Shipment”
When: Through March 13
Presented by: Torn Space Theater
Where: Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave.
Tickets: $15 to $25