The Shipment, The Pit, Barbican, London – review

The playwright Young Jean Lee habitually sets out to challenge herself and her audience. With The Shipment, which begins as a stylistically diverse mix of discrete scenes and routines before changing gear into drama, she, a Korean-American artist, sets out to make a theatre piece about African-American identity and experience, and dares us to… what exactly? To move past the aggressive accusations of racism in the opening spoken segment, a mock-stand-up comedy sequence that leads into a first-half “minstrel show”? To consider seriously the glib final twist in the more or less naturalistic drama that takes up the latter half of the performance? To be disconcerted out of our preconceptions?

The last, I think, is the true case. Yet a number of Lee’s strategies, as enacted by her five-strong African-American cast, are counterproductive. First, direct accusations are more likely to provoke a combative response from us in self-defence than to stop us short. Second, adding two or three lines to relocate a routine to England does not translate the landscape of racial experiences or the listening culture of the audience. And third, behaving at some moments as if basic observations of difference aren’t racist and at others as if they plainly are, may be intended to confuse and provoke, but in practice just appears muddled and incoherent.

At bottom, Lee relies on the goodwill of the audience to want to be put on the spot. But this constitutes a kind of licence that’s entirely at odds with the confrontational stance of the show.

An earlier version of the piece was apparently abandoned when predominantly white audiences took its urban dance stylings (which now only feature in a prelude) at face value and – gasp! – enjoyed them. The challenges in the current incarnation are far more direct and explicit, and some of them are ones that many in the audience will have flunked (myself possibly included). So this version might not work any better after all. In the end, it’s no more incisive than the mock-Muppets in the musical Avenue Q singing bouncily that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”.

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