Playwright and director Young Jean Lee claims that she starts every new project by asking herself, “what’s the last play in the world I’d ever want to write?”, and then writing it. While studying for her MFA and dreaming of life as a “cool Downtown playwright,” the worst thing Lee could imagine was an historical play about the English Romantic poets (The Appeal). Later, she wrote about her home town (Pullman, WA), Korean-American identity politics (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) and an earnest evangelical religious service (Church). Of course, none of these were really the last plays in the world Lee would ever want to write, but the story stuck.
Lee’s latest is The Shipment, in production at The Kitchen until January 24. A two-act about black identity politics, The Shipment opens with a minstrel show, or, as Lee would no doubt call it, a “deconstructed” minstrel show. This isn’t the last thing in the world that she’d ever want to write either.
The minstrel show consists of a “Richard Pryor-like” stand-up routine followed by some “Dave Chappelle-like” skits, with a little song and dance thrown in. The stand-up is meant to be extremely funny and uncomfortably aggressive; coming four decades after Pryor, it’s neither. An aesthetic principle (of admittedly limited application) to keep in mind: if you’re going to include a stand-up routine in a work of art, it had better be a remarkable stand-up routine. (Don DeLillo set the literary gold standard in Underworld with the routines he imagines Lenny Bruce performing during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) This one is forgettably mediocre.
With the skits, Lee is back to the ”clichéd” identity-politics territory of Songs of the Dragons. We put “clichéd” in scare quotes because the entire scene (as with the entirety of Songs) is in scare quotes: the characters practice rapping and dribbling; sell drugs; and die in drive-by shootings ― all while saying things like “Christianity is the white man’s filth religion!” However, they’re wearing tuxedos. And the lines ― declarative sentences all ― are delivered in an exaggerated monotone. “I know these are clichés!” Lee is announcing. We know it too, but that shared knowledge doesn’t transform her clichés into original writing any more than being on the inside of a bad inside joke makes it funny.
The “minstrel show” ends, and the second act provides (as Lee says in the director’s notes) “relief” to a complacent white audience. The script calls for a “TRANSITION TO NATURALISTIC SET,” a tasteful apartment is brought onstage, and a small mid-evening get-together among young professionals is enacted. Mikeah Earnest Jennings (our favorite of the evening) plays Omar, an Asberger’s sufferer currently obsessing over a bizarre set of food restrictions. Douglas Scott Streater plays Thomas, a resentful wage-slave turning thirty and consumed with many of the typically “white” complaints ― ”I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!” “I didn’t get anything done today!” ― mocked in the stand-up routine. Most of the characters are believable and well-performed, but the action feels overly compressed: The Shipment’s second act could have been a full-length play about the “funny games” Thomas plays on his guests, but it was truncated to make room for that superfluous minstrel show.
A “well constructed” play about an awkward yuppie birthday party: this is the last thing in the world that Young Jean Lee ever wanted to write. It’s also significantly better than The Shipment’s first act, Church, or Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. There may be something to her method after all.
*** Our friends over at Flavorpill spend all of their time seeking out great things for you to do, so they’d be disappointed with us if we spent all of our time telling you what not to do. Fair enough: from now on, we’ll try to suggest an alternative activity at the end of every negative theater review. This one’s easy: read those Lenny Bruce routines in Underworld, pages 504-9, 544-8, 580-6, 590-5, and 623-33, of the paperback. Most people give up a few hundred pages before that, so there are always plenty of cheap copies at The Strand.