I recently saw a horror play that, with the exception of an amazing entrance and particularly clever scene or two, didn't do that much for me. That's just a matter of taste; when I want to be made uncomfortable and a little scared, I want the focus not on supernatural monsters but frightening topics with which I actually wrestle. The Shipment's genuinely dangerous topic is focused on the African-American experience as perceived from within and without with special attention to portrayals in the culture.
Let's get a disclaimer aside: if you aren't at some level able to handle sustained vulgarity, skip this one. The stand up comic scene near the beginning is too much to handle otherwise. Similarly if uncomfortable but entertained and bracingly toyed with but in good hands isn't a place you want to be for 90 minutes, then it's not for you. However, if you dare brave experimental theater, know that this is a 90 minutes of entertainment that is very attuned to craft, entrancing dance, multilevel portrayals, and moments of great wit and beauty.
For a full discussion you can see the Post's review or an even more detailed review of an earlier production in the Root. The short version is that this is a variety show that wrestles with the format of minstrel shows past and some of their present descendents. The five players take a variety of roles which echo one another. This isn't a parody primarily concerned with an arch version of a particular story; it's outright satire and far more vicious to its source material. This can easily misfire, but with playwright Young Jean Lee and director Psalmayene 24 we are in able hands. Changes of scene bring new provocations, but also relief.
As an audience member, particularly in the first half, I felt connections as much to the five actors as to the characters they played. Particularly in the middle section, a stylized take on an after school special on urban African American poverty, each character was played one step removed with tactical choices made on when to commit and when to stick with stylized and stilted portrayals. In much the same way that a favorite comedian can bring a range of history to even a thinly sketched character, this kept me engaged with the actors when a lesser performance would have just had me alienated from the characters. The play doesn't wallow in ironic distance. That would be too easy. Instead it walks a thin line of discomfort as Shannon Dorsey plays a conventional mother character at the start of the scene only by the end to tell an absurdist parable of the origin of a very damaged world through the lives of disfigured cranes. Similarly Mark Hairston's earnest and emotionally vulnerable prison radical is a very different approach on sentiments earlier expressed by his shock comic.
The second half, after an achingly beautiful vocal performance and a scene changing palette cleanser, gives the cast a chance to play what seems a more conventional parlor comedy. Mark Hairston goes from earlier broad character types to a vey specific neurotic partygoer who, despite his insistence that he read a study that seltzer water might rot your bones, portrayed the sort of very real person I'd want as a guest. Gary L. Perkins III similarly went from a stock character rap inguéne to the person who was slightly too good for the party, an outsider there in part because the host
liked him more than his actual friends. Dexter Hamlett goes from an oft malevolent puppet master to a character whose secret puts him in somewhat in the power of another, at least when it comes to picking the evening's entertainment. The other two players take a similar turn, but to learn why the cast is only allowed real depth at the end, I'd recommend watching the play yourself.
So how did it rekindle my love of satire? Like one of my fellow audience members, I tended more towards to British than American satire, probably in part because the distance makes it easier. I do enjoy the Daily Show and Colbert, but that's less often work that I'm directly implicated in and discomfort more often comes from interviews and the interaction of people out of character with those in character. By comparison, actively uncomfortable satire has also been particularly prominent in our culture of late as a catchall defense for offensive speech or discussion of French satire after the murders of Charlie Hedbo staff. That said, the most insightful piece I'd read recently was by Film Critic Hulk on Fight Club (warning, caps). A key insight from that piece is that a failing of Fight Club is that it is too compelling in terms of the nihilism it is sending up. He compares David Fincher's work to Paul Thomas Anderson, who "implicitly understood that in order to undo the seduction and allure of his pornographic inclinations in Boogie Nights, he essentially had to spend half the length of the film completely undoing that. He clearly understood the responsibility not to being indulgent."
I think everyone involved with this production understood that responsibility and took it very seriously. I meant it when I called the production dangerous at the start. There weren't any walkouts the night I went, but that's not true every night. This would be easy material to botch at any stage of the production and even though I found it successful and discomforting, an African-American woman in the audience who made the earlier comment about satire also found herself angered by the stand up comedy bit and felt it punched down at times. This is an area where I think Forum Theater's after-production discussions really shine. Dramaturge led up a strictly voluntary chat with about a half dozen of the audience members. I think it's important that art challenge us, but Forum understands the responsibility of satire in my view. I particularly appreciated actor Dexter Hamlett joining the conversation, although I did not fully recognize him at first as he shed at least ten years when he went out of character. I do think that the way we talk about race has changed some since the play was first written, and the way the stand-up trades on a range of taboos may now distract from rather than heighten some of the power of the scene (there's a line about walking on eggshells that made the whole bit worthwhile to me). But every part of this play left me with moments I hope to long recall. If you'll be anywhere near Silver Spring, go see it. If you miss this show, check out the Forum's future offerings. They've never let us down.
Production photos by Forum Theater available on Flickr by C. Stanley Photography. Technically they're all rights reserved, but I think this is how they're meant to be used. Correct me if I'm wrong there.