Too often, new theater exploring identity politics asks little more of its audience than respect. Rather than questioning our assumptions about ethnicity, class, or gender, we spectators end up nodding in agreement and applauding in reverence. With a mischievous, there-I-said-it spirit, playwright-director Young Jean Lee aims to shake up that dynamic in her theatrical pastiches. The Shipment, her newest production, specifically challenges mainstream perceptions of African-American identity through a series of engaging but overextended vignettes. It opens with a dance to Semisonic’s “Fascinating New Thing,” moves into an MC’s barbed stand-up act, and eventually culminates in a one-act comedy of manners with a clever reversal at its core.
The early sequences rely on puerile recitations of supposedly verboten words and sentiments—intended as daring cultural punctures, but no more outré than the edgier cable shows. But Lee’s longer parlor comedy, where the take-home message isn’t so ostentatious, carries the piece. Her trap-laying works beautifully, asking the audience to judge the content of her characters despite deliberately superficial evidence. Ironically, Lee may be at her best when satirizing the mores and neuroses of America’s self-absorbed middle classes, regardless of racial politics. She excels at writing faux-naïf dialogue that reveals our flattened minds and boundless self-absorption.