The Shipment

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

If there were a Richter Scale for risk-taking in theater, Forum Theatre’s  production of The Shipment would register right up at the top. In brazenly challenging assumptions about how we perceive race and identity, The Shipment literally rocks the house. The unsettling shock waves it generates come one upon another. It disrupts our comfort zone with caustic comedic wit. It is suffused with a sense of humor that we both laugh at and can’t.

The script by Young Jean Lee defies more conventions that one can count—with nerve and verve like I’ve never seen. The nimbly inventive direction by Psalmayene 24 keeps us on edge—just at the fine line between amusement and unease, between hilarity and alarm—yet always pulls us back, albeit sometimes just barely.

The Shipment takes chances. Mind-blowing chances.

The play is in two parts that are as different as can be. The first is like vaudeville, with  musical numbers and comedy sketches that send up minstrelsy. The second is a satire on the naturalistic drawing room comedy, the running joke being that this one is peopled by Buppies who talk and act exactly like entitled whites. The gear-stripping shift from one part to the other—which takes us from stereotypical portrayals of blacks by blacks to stereotypical portrayals of whites by blacks—is a shocker in itself. A fiercely gifted cast of five—Shannon Dorsey, Mark Hairston, Dexter Hamlett, Darius McCall, and Gary L. Perkins III—plays the discombobulating multiplicity of roles.

The show begins on a bare stage with five chairs (Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove is credited with the minimalist set design but also deserves credit for programing this maximal provocation.) The cast comes out and does a cartoonish song and dance routine to a song called “Fascinating New Thing.” At the time I recognized neither the band, Semisonic, nor the song—the lyrics of which include “I’m surprised that you’ve never been told before / That you’re lovely / And you’re perfect.” So the irony escaped me that this alt-rock band is three white guys from Minneapolis.

As I was soon to learn, The Shipment delivers so much irony you may sometimes be uncertain whether to scratch your head or let it merrily spin.

Abruptly Darius McCall, in a most impressive in-your-face performance (he is known in the Deaf community as Prinz-D), begins a standup routine so rude and crude one may need to wince or squirm. Among the more printable of its crass lines is  “Most white folks ain’t evil—they just stupid.” Then the barbs turn equal-opportunity: “It ain’t just white folks bein’ clueless,” the comedian says. “White, Asian, Latino, black.”

Who is this guy, and what are we to make of him? So begins our teetering on the edge of a brave new take on what we see when we see race. The theme is carried through in successive comedy sketches played so broadly we cannot help but be in on the joke. They run a gamut of black cultural cliches from drug dealing, stealing, and jail to basketball and rap. One, for instance, is set during a video shoot that’s supposed to feature rapper wannabe Omar (Gary L. Perkins)—but first a stylist named Sashay (Mark Hairston, in a hilariously scene-stealing turn) sings an ostentatious song about his special uniqueness and flamboyantly hits on Omar.

In the second part The Shipment delivers huge helpings of cultural cliches about a group of well-off thirty-something friends. They are, as the cookie slur says, black on the outside and white on the inside, and their fun-show parade of self-involved obsessions and woes is a hoot. (In a cast full of clowns, Shannon Dorsey in these scenes is particularly over-the-top.)

Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks creates some effects that are as jolting as the text. Costume Designer Katie Touart gives the actors stark abstract black for the first part and naturalistic earth tones for the second. Properties Designer Kevin Laughon cleverly provides all the objects for the first part as flat black drawings on white squares, which works terrific as an unreality check. And Choreographer Tony Thomas II has given the cast an entertaining spate of moves. (Though the dancing on opening night seemed not quite yet sharp, that scarcely mattered—in all else the cast’s performances were cutting and acute.)

The Shipment is an extraordinary script being given an exceptional production by Forum Theatre. By playing with our own perceptions of itself, The Shipment prompts us to notice that the way we perceive racial identity can be unperceptive. It makes us look at the lens through which we look. It incites us to see how we see.

Afterward you may not know what hit you. But whatever it was is a hit.

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

The Shipment plays through June 13, 2015 at Forum Theatre performing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre  – 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8279, or purchase them online.