I was happy to finally get a chance to see Young Jean Lee’s much-praised play The Shipment at the Kitchen this week. Though enjoying most of the show, I found myself leaving the theater in a somewhat sour state of mind, dismayed over the play’s final moment, fretting about the piece’s surprise ending. It’s a finale the reviews haven’t really explored in much detail out of spoiler fear, but which, well, we’re about to–you’re warned!
The Shipment is of course Lee’s “black” play, a collage of vignettes, dance, and song that challenges and exploits black stereotypes and audience expectations of black theater. The project gets extra buzz out of the fact that Lee is Korean-American, though I don’t think that matters very much here.
My previous experiences with Lee productions–Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven and Church–were mixed. Church, her look at religion, was pretty much a muddle, but Songs of the Dragon–her Korean-American-themed play–had a lot going for it, if not quite deserving of the highest accolades it received from some quarters.
So I was pleased to have so enjoyed The Shipment. Until the end, anyway. The funny, somewhat Albee-esque one-act that concludes the evening finishes on the punch line that the characters at the elaborate cocktail party we’ve been watching, though acted by black performers, are actually–surprise!–white people. But the meta-theatrical moment, for me anyway, comes across as an empty trick with no real effect. For the reversal to work and have meaning, it requires the assumption (by audience, playwright, or both) that black people don’t have cocktail parties or hold professional office jobs, or that a living-room comedy can’t be set in a well-appointed black home. Which seems a rather retrograde stretch in 2009.
Alas. Especially since so much of the rest of the show was so good. Anyway, we’re happy to hear your take on the ending, if you’ve seen the play.
I do, though, want to praise the cast, one of the best ensembles I’ve seen his year: Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Prentice Onayemi, Okieriete Onaodowan, Douglas Scott Streater, and Amelia Workman compose the fantastic fivesome. And despite the over-blown attention Lee gets as a provocateur (she’s not really doing anything that novel), the one place where she doesn’t get enough credit is as a director. Church aside, Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven and The Shipment have each had a pleasing elegance and specificity–especially for downtown shows. That aspect of her work definitely needs more recognition.
For some other takes on The Shipment, check out Tom Sellar’s Voice review, Christopher Isherwood’s piece in that ol’ Midtown broadside, and our own Alexis Soloski writing about it for The Guardian. The remaining two shows are sold out, but a wait list starts at 7 p.m. at the Kitchen’s box office, 512 West 19th Street.–Brian Parks