Review: Crowded Fire’s ‘The Shipment’ is effectively uncomfortable

The Shipment

Bay Area talents William Hartfield, Nican Robinson, Howard Johnson Jr., Nkechi Emeruwa, and Michael Wayne Turner III explore stereotypes in Crowded Fire’s “The Shipment.” (Photo by Pak Han)

I’m not sure what was more disturbing when watching Crowded Fire Theater’s production of “The Shipment.”

First of all, there’s a comedian that delves into every offensive things known to man, with very few laughs at his behest. He dropped the bomb on just about every taboo out there. There were plenty of jokes about those wild and wacky phenomenons of bestiality and child abuse, as well as those old school racial jokes. You know the ones. They usually start with things like, “When white people parent their kids…” and end with “When black people parent their kids…” It’s comedy sans nuance, low hanging fruit that an audience may or may not reach for.

But as offensive, yet sometimes insightful and poignant, as this comedian is, the more uncomfortable piece of the play has everything to do with the opening, masterfully crafted and implemented by directors Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins, choreographed by Rami Margron. It’s a vicious tropefest that gives hints of minstrel shows – the head bobbing, the smiles, the hand waving. And when it was all done, the actors rested. No laughs, no expression, no nothing – just rest.

Being black in America is exhausting in so many ways. The wonderful author and thinker Ta Nehisi Coates referred to this as a constant attack on the body. And for these entertainers, who were the key for so many to justify their own lack of racism (How can I be racist? I just love those dancers and all those black moves!), entertaining was a 24/7 endeavor, their bodies in control by the paying customers who watched. And in the political times we are living and suffering through, is this what making America great again is really all about?

So much comes to mind as you witness this quirky play, written by revered experimental playwright and UC Berkeley alumnus Young Jean Lee. The play goes right at the throats of the audience quite viscerally, a great piece for the intimate space of San Francisco’s Thick House Theatre. There is obviously the comedian (a strong presence by Howard Johnson, Jr.) who wastes no time sharing what you may or may not be thinking. It’s uncomfortable, yet potent stuff.

The play functions in about four acts and moves swiftly through 90 uninterrupted minutes. There are the aforementioned pieces, and then there is the tale of Omar the rapper (A charming and effective Michael Wayne Turner III). He is an earnest young gent who simply wants to rap and get out of his gritty, inner-city existence. Despite his best intentions, the streets swallow him up whole. Yet the strength of the story is the stylized acting that works completely against the stereotypes. “Boys in the Hood” this is not. Lee’s script confronts race by taking it out completely in some brilliant instances, and despite the fact that the characterizations of the well-rounded cast of five are quite effective and funny, there is sad poetry in their eyes.

The Shipment

The comedian (Howard Johnson, Jr.) pulls no punches, taking on every taboo in “The Shipment.”

The cast is certainly effective in their harmony. In addition to the discomforting will of Johnson, Jr. and the boyish charm of Turner III, there is versatile performer William Hartfield, the character driven actor Nican Robinson and the regality of the lovely Nkechi Emeruwa.

The play’s denouement also introduces a very interesting scene change, one that even earned applause. It starts off with two white stage hands that come out and build a very Silicon Valleyish living room set. But what is somewhat striking is that there is a kind of satisfaction in watching the white stagehands build this living room. Is that a racist thought? One may say so. Is it normal thought? Who the hell knows. I tend to look at it more as poetic justice. These two gentlemen and their precision are striking, especially because there is nothing particularly special about the way they go about their business. Take notice of the way one seems to agonize over every crease in the throw rug, while the other angles the meat and cheese tray with all of the precision of an architect designing the next great American skyscraper. It is slow and methodical, and a brilliant touch that has little to do with the script, yet a lot to do with where we might be living in the moment.

The scene that follows is full of laughs, but also seems to make the point that, despite the differences of our skin tones are we really that different? When the comedian at the beginning of the play describes black people as “40-drinking,” and the end of the play has a group of black people enjoying an expensive scotch, this flies in the face of that stereotype the comedian presents. Or does it? The ending, which has one helluva twist, once again turns the politic on its head for the umpteenth time in 90 minutes.

“The Shipment” offers no answers to the divisiveness that has consumed our nation. Nor should it. It offers ideas and sensibilities and hurtful jokes that may or may not be funny. This is not a cozy, comfortable night of theatre.

It’s better than that.

It’s an uncomfortable and effective night of theatre that forces every audience member to look within and make decisions about what they believe to be true. In order for something to be fixed it has to be acknowledged. “The Shipment” acknowledges plenty – now it’s time for all of us to fix it.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Crowded Fire Theater presents “The Shipment”
Written by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins
The Word: A quirky script by playwright provocateur Young Jean Lee turns stereotypes and entertainment on its head.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Thick House
1695 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Through Oct. 15th
Tickets range from $15 – $35
For tickets, call (415) 523-0034, ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org

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