The Shipment, Young Jean Lee & Company
seen on Friday Sept. 5th
Posted by: Susan Ploetz
As I walked home from watching the Shipment, I felt open and tender to everyone passing by me. I wanted to sit with the woman eating alone outside a fancy restaurant, because she looked sad (probably I was just making a huge assumption), I wanted to chat with the homeless guy with the pressed hair. I wanted to know the dudes story on the max with the distorted face, if he was lonely, what he was going to do later that night… I thought of my own loneliness that is somehow intertwined with my capacity to feel compassion towards other people. I thought of how unfair life is, how unjust, and how much sadness there is, and what can be done?….
The Shipment is superbly written, intellectual with an absurdist bent, with poetic moments and hilarious moments and harshly true moments, and it is beautifully acted (in a way that you can tell the performers added so much to the actual production). The first section to me read as the “stereotype ‘black’” act, with cartoon depictions and hypnotic stiff movements. The singing in the center of the piece, with the actors stepping out looking at the audience, something I recognize as a sort of theater exercise “creating presence” as a sort of interlude, with the actors singing about how they weren’t going to be the dark center of the universe, they might disintegrate …as the sort of well, not exactly FUCK YOU, but more like, HEY, its’ not like that. This is who I am, I’m really here with you, and I’m not going to be what you want me to be.
That lead to the part, that, when I saw it coming , I said to myself, oh, this is going to be the “white” part. It was set up like more like a typical play, people sitting around in a living room talking, what came to my mind was “The Importance of Being Earnest”, for some reason, itself a farce of bourgeois drama of the Victorian age. The Shipment is set up to not be easy, to not take anything for granted, to expect to not have things how you might think you’re supposed to think they are, but then to have to think again and again because maybe they aren’t the way you think they aren’t in the ways you are thinking of….
The last part of the play, maybe I would sometimes think about, well, is this a white person’s thing, to not be eating meat or fruits or dairy or or or ….? But mostly they were all thoroughly believeable as sort of upwardly mobile black Americans struggling with their lives, with drugs, with universal problems of alienation and insecurities. But then, the last line! Felt like a trick, did I sympathize with them just because they were acting “white”? What does that even mean?
The Shipment is not a black person’s play, nor is it trying to be, its more complicated than that. In a way, the fact that the actors are all “black” is just another layer Young Jean Lee and the actors are playing with, like, what does that mean, to be “black” with its meaning and not meaning all these different things? It essentially becomes about the performance of race itself. What faces we show and don’t show, which ones we are allowed or forced into.
Once I was on the bus and watched this bus driver, who was an amazing performer actually. When a black person boarded the bus, he “acted” black, talked in a more “black” vernacular, mannerisms, etc. Then when a white person boarded the bus, he acted “white” with “white” vocabulary of speech and posture. Without fail, and without flaws, either performance was pitch perfect and “passed”. You would maybe guess, since he was a black man, that the “white” talk was the act, but who are you to think and know? As a white person or a black one, you don’t know this man, the details of his life, how he was raised, what he feels inside, what’s motivating him to do this performance…. What IS motivating him to do that? What motivates any of us to go back and forth, appropriate, claim and reclaim, believe and not believe….
Now, I have something to say that’s weird and hard to articulate, so maybe it won’t come out right, BUT….
I think the real problem of race relations in America is that, actually, we love each other so much, black people and white people. Our lives have be so intimately intertwined from the inception of America (and Africans had a huge hand in pushing European culture forward), and its always been more complicated than white owner/black slave dynamic. It has been this complex realtionship of “black” and “white” that makes America what it is. White americans secretly know they’d be nothing without black people. And well, I’m not black, but I could maybe make a guess that black americans are, sometimes, as scared and fascinated and curious and mystified by us as we are of them. But also, (maybe as a woman I can relate this to my feelings towards men sometimes)… mistrustful, suspicious, angry, protective against, and ultimately, tired of and resentful that they are not listened to and not seen for who they really are, in all the complicated ways that we each as individuals are complex and more than the sum of our identity (race, gender class, etc) parts. Or, not seen at all.
A lot gets in the way of our love for each other sometimes: the media, segregation, cultural differences, but mostly its power, And it’s a power derived from self-loathing, (as it is with men and women). A power that expresses itself as anxiety, which the person who has the power only can see as a weakness, not a power they hold over someone. Basically, it’s a dysfunctional love, not a situation easily remedied, not at all. And something both sides need to work on. Not in the “even steven” way from the stand up portion of the Shipment, white people should always be aware of their extreme privilege in a, basically, white supremacist society. And that, we need each other, we all really need each other, we need to understand, we need to break through. I mean, really, how hard would it be, to extend an olive branch, to say “we are sorry!” to say please please please please please please please don’t leave me, don’t leave us, we love you, and we will try to do better. Not out of guilt, but those true places of love and admiration and respect. I know this isn’t the typical political way to talk about race, but maybe that’s the problem. Its so hard to change the structural racism, although work on that is so so important, but its easy to overlook how interpersonal dynamics make up those structures.
As I felt open and tender on my walk home, I thought about the complications of this wonderful play, and how would it have been different if it had been written by a black person. Or presented by a “black” company, not one headed by an asian woman, one with an MFA (and ALMOST a phd? studying Shakespeare?) There is a lot of black theater out there, but what of it gets to pass as cutting edge, contemporary art, that seal of approval, from….? how many white people are willing to meet black culture on its own terms, in all of its different facets, and appreciate all the magic there? So much is at stake, if a project doesn’t have “good” production values, (or using bad ones in a self conscious way) … I just thought of the struggles of being an black playright. Or just a black person who wants to make a play. How yes of course its possible, its happening, but how to bridge the gap….. It requires white people to give, more than an inch. It requires white people to shut up and listen, to educate themselves, to break out of their isolation, to stop being scared of the world and the people in it.
The real issue is not assuming anything about anyone. The real issue is how can we be good listeners, better listeners? How can we cultivate true presence with each other, how can we listen honestly, so that the person talking can feel you are really trying, at least, to receive the person as who they are? How can we make NO assumptions, based on appearance, dress, speech, how can we go deeper than that? Can we? Can we take in these things, but still not assume…. Its hard work, it’s a lifetime of work, its your duty, it’s a mediation, to witness your thoughts and assumptions but let them pass, with a gentleness towards yourself and towards others.
A work like the shipment can’t solve all the problems out there, and I questioned at first, ok, how did this help, for me to see this play? But I feel the difference, it DID help, it served as a catalyst and a reminder… I felt open and tender, and there is a continuing opening, past the viewing, as I do and don’t make mistakes (of all kinds) … I feel it in how I look at people, how I feel like I can approach people. I can try, to be open and present, and if I make a mistake, I can say sorry. I can say sorry, i can learn a better way, and we can move on.