Yong Jean Lee’s “The Shipment”

Performativity is separate to performance, affirms Butler. When it comes to the performativity of gender, she believes that “gender is a stylized repetition of acts… which are internally discontinuous … so that the appearance of substance is precisely that — a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief.” Butler is speaking to the idea of gender being constructed by society rather than naturalized at birth. Gender is not a biological recognition, but a constructed concept. This is in much the same way that race is also constructed. With a cast of five people, Young Jean Lee’s production of The Shipment put together five distinct parts to their production. The first being movement on stage by two of the actors, then a stand-up comedy show with just Douglas Scott, a short skit with the entire cast, an acapella performance by two male actors and the only female one, and lastly a short play performed by the whole cast. Their work speaks to the ‘script’ that is often tied with race and the acknowledgement of race as a constructed word that has become normalized.

The show opens with one black male actor moving energetically on stage. He is soon joined by another actor. The two imitate each other’s movement, at times performing in unison or even individualizing their movements. Their movements are directed to the audience, often turning to face them or even shaking their bums right in front of them. The opening can be seen as recognition of the form that the production is following by having an all black cast on a stage and where there is a frequent acknowledgement of the audience. It parodies the concept of minstrelsy and how black bodies were a source of entertainment for a white population, to the point where blackfacing was even done. In his stand-up comedy solo performance, Douglas Scott ties his comedy to specific kinds of terminology. For example, he openly acknowledges the use of the word “nigger” and uses it frequently in his own sentences. Douglas energetically says that he “needs to talk about race because white people are stupid motherfuckers”. He attempts to highlight a hypocrisy that exists amongst people who are white. Although he spends a great deal of time blaming white people for their opinions on race, also acknowledges that “black people are stupid” as well. Although he uses race as a target point to build his rants and discussions off of, it would appear that he aims to place blame on people and not a racially specific people.

I recall moments when watching the final short play with the whole cast where I questioned who it was that they were playing. I remembered Cloud 9, where the black slave is played by a white actor because it represents the black man conforming to what whites want him to be. There were moments where I thought the all black cast was playing all white characters. Part of this assumption lies in how the cleverly the stand-up comedy component of the show was a kind of set up for the final play. Douglas spoke about how “white people don’t want to hear black people whine” and that white people are probably the biggest whiners. In the last act we have Omar for instance, who whines about people invading his personal space or how he avoids certain foods. Douglas’s acknowledgement of stereotypes of both whites and blacks allowed for the characterization of the actors into their final roles at the end. Rather than each segment of The Shipment then, being distinct, each one builds off of the other. The sheer absurdity of these aggrandized characters highlights the expectation of the audience to see black people perform in a grand, stylized and humourous way. When they begin to play a game and the prompt is “the negro believes,” there is a similar sense of normalcy similar to the beginning when Douglas openly uses the word “nigger” in his speech. This plays on the notion that it is perfectly fine for blacks to use these terms because these are the terms that that are associated and imposed on their ‘identity’ as blacks. However, when Omar states “I don’t think we’d be doing this if there was a black person in the room,” it completely turns the whole scene on its head. The production blurs the lines of the actions, gestures, language and characterizations that are associated with blacks and imposes them on whites. In doing so, they present that race is not determined by birth but by language. Note that the transition between scenes into the last one was incorporated into the performance. Rather than the set up of the stage being a moment the audience is not supposed to see, the transition is made visible. In fact, Mary J. Blige’s “Ooh” song is played, and all the lights on stage are kept turned on two older white men who take their time in moving everything into place. White men are literally constructing the set which then black actors perform in. As one can see in the play Our Town by Wilder, whiteness is always defined in relation to its other. The black actors never change anything on set and are restricted to furniture on stage, elevating the idea of conformity within societal structures and the normalcy attached to constructed ideas of race.

The Shipment speaks to the stereotypes that are associated with African Americans. More than this however, it is a portrayal of what is thought of that happens when people do talk about race, and how this conversation differs between white people, black and white, and black people. The discussion of race is considered taboo but also privileged; only white people get to talk about race. Only do the whites get to feel victimized and targeted when in a room with blacks. As Douglas says, “for white people the sense of persecution festers”. However, as Douglas acknowledges in his stand-up comedy, black people are also afraid of other black people. What this speaks to is not the nonsensical stereotype that all blacks are dangerous, but that people are dangerous. We tie these stereotypes to race in order to feel like the victims or have a sense of authority over a scapegoat, but humans in general have the potential to be dangerous. Race does not determine action. However, the associations – the ‘script’ – that are tied with race have been normalized to the extent that one can come to believe that race does inform action. The Shipment attempts to rewrite this script by following it and performing it differently each time so that its absurdity can enlighten the audience to question the identity of the self and the other.

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