Since World War II, mainstream writing on race in America has always had a reformist element - naturally enough, it always seemed. Racism was duly condemned as evil and false, and characters deluded by it were either censured, defeated, or eventually reformed. Even ironic latter-day twists on this formula, like David Mamet's Race, still unconsciously clung to the quaint notion that character transcended color.
But Young Jean Lee's highly original The Shipment - the last performance of which you can catch at the ICA this afternoon - may be the first meditation on race I've ever seen that pretty much dispenses with that sweet sentiment. To this young Korean-American playwright, racism is simply how the world operates, and how we operate, too - it's a crucial ingredient not merely of our social identity but of our actual, inner identity - if that really exists (Lee carefully sidesteps this question). As whites stereotype blacks, so blacks stereotype whites, and both play off their own stereotyping in not just their social presentations but in how they think about themselves. In short, racism is our actual lingua franca; you can't be hip, or even self-aware, without it.
This, of course, is a common belief in the academy, but it's rarely voiced so openly on stage, perhaps because it's such a coolly despairing point of view (and quite possibly a hardcore racist one). And certainly The Shipment, intriguing as it is, is also coolly despairing, even if that despair is concealed beneath a pastiche of energetic vulgarity and clever button-pushing - most of which turns out to be a deception, by the way. Indeed, we eventually learn the entire show has been a deception; even its marketing has been a deception - it has been widely praised as a searing indictment of racism. But frankly, "a sad acceptance of racism" would be closer to the truth.
To be fair, at first it seems like an indictment; The Shipment opens with a ridiculous dance number (at top left) that recalls a minstrel show but plays out against something like current pop, and then segues into a similarly up-to-the-minute, and therefore scorchingly filthy, routine by an Eddie Murphy- or Chris Rock-like comic. The comedian seems to be boiling over with rage, and baits his (supposedly) white audience relentlessly: "White people be evil," he declares, but then immediately retreats: "Naw, I’m just playin’ wit’ chall. Most white folks ain’t evil—they just stupid!" A split-second later, however, having made his jabs, he does another 180, into a grotesque self-abasement as a "Negro" who's obsessed with bodily functions that "whites" repress: "You think I enjoy talkin’ ’bout race?" he cries, putting on his best Al Jolson face. "I wanna talk about POOP, mothafuckahs!" Indeed, he conflates these two modes toward the end of his routine, when he snickers to us "crackers" that he hopes his white wife will "lick his asshole" later tonight. All told, it's a virtuosic dance through millennial minstrelsy, through which Lee subtly insinuates that the performer is not only exploiting but actually collaborating with his own objectification.
And the minstrel show just keeps on coming: next we get an after-school special about a young African-American teen lured into the drug trade, even though "rapping is his dream." Here the actors (a very strong group, btw, with star turns from Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Douglas Scott Streater, and Amelia Workman) are obviously bored out of their minds, and recite their clichéd dialogue ("Oh no! Not a drive-by shooting!") by hilarious rote. Finally comes a haunting song in which they tell us "we're not the dark center of the universe . . . we could disappear into thin air if you'd like," before standing still for several minutes, gazing silently out at the crowd, just staring (or maybe searching).
What comes next, though, is what gives the evening its only real sting. The set for what looks like a sophisticated "black" sitcom on Fox is assembled (at left), and the actors re-assemble for a performance that's seemingly naturalistic in its detail, and free of the stereotypic caricature we've seen so far. As the action progresses, it grows slightly surreal, however, and its sense of cultural "surround" becomes unstable - and while the characters insist they're going to leave any minute, they seem unable to. We sense we're being set up, but we're not sure precisely how - and Lee displays a high level of skill in keeping her narrative bouncing along from one surprise to another, while keeping us guessing as to its true nature.
When the Sixth-Sense-like dénouement finally arrives, at first it feels like a satisfying white-liberal gotcha! moment. But as one ponders its real meaning, it too seems to be something other than what it appears. I won't give away the big surprise, but I will say that with it, Lee snaps shut what is essentially a hall of mirrors - but what it reflects, she is unwilling (or unable) to say. In the world of The Shipment, "race" has been replaced by "mediated race," and just as the actors can't cross the fourth wall when they stare out at the audience at the play's "hinge," so the script offers us no way to cross over from minstrel show to reality. In the old days of Driving Miss Daisy, the theatre communicated a sentimental story of individual people of different races connecting despite the mores of the day. But "real life" doesn't seem to exist in The Shipment, and so no corny, patronizing Atticus-Finch style gesture, or even "Can't we all just get along?"-style accommodation, is really possible (it's not even on the table). In fact, our mediated culture depends on the assumption that it's impossible; for Ms. Lee, a Korean-American, to try to write actual black or white characters would be ridiculous and insulting in the world of The Shipment. This, I think, is a deeply millennial view - and its innocent cynicism is what makes The Shipment quite remarkable. The evening opens with an empty stage, echoing with a deep, melodramatic rumble: beneath the minstrel show lies THE VOID, it announces. But somehow that sense of emptiness made me a little nostalgic for Atticus and Miss Daisy.