So THE SHIPMENT is fucking brilliant.
Two MEN DANCERS bound on in charcoal grey suits, a raucous modern pas de deux, agile and yeah, and tight. Some real elastic stuff. With a bit of BOYZ IN THE THA CITEHHHH, WAT WILL THEY SEE ON THEIR JOURNEHH kind of melodramatic edges.
I was thinking the music equivalent would be DAS RACIST but it reminded me more of MF DOOM because of those comedy connections and PRODUCTION and guile, so listen to this remix while you read.
The MEN DANCERS bugger off, next on comes A COMEDIAN, and from offstage it’s all MUTHAFUCKING LONDON MAKE SOME NOIZE. “And white people, they like this, but black people; they think this”; and this sort of hack thing post-Richard Pryor, and I’m thinking, but we’re not down in the black comedy clubs, and I’m feeling so hard the consensus of theatre liberal kind of pressing on my cheeks.
(Theatres exert the juju of the white liberal. This big weak lazy set of incantations that float across foyers the Northern world over. It’s dangerous magic; it saps your critical thinking and makes you anxious about having the right attitudes. And suddenly you’re judging black masculinity on the grounds of white liberal feminism, you’re remembering the Guardian exists, you’re using the phrase “the arts” and wondering why people you want to come to a DIVERSITY talk on the Southbank don’t feel particularly interested – because you’ve made spaces for affluent white people and tacked some outreach thing on the end of it. With skin pricking sharpness SHIPMENT takes this kind of shit head on THROUGH THE LENS OF RACE.)
And THE COMEDIAN is not quite right. He doesn’t entirely want to please us with his affective labour, entertain us folks. There’s something scary at the edges; the shocked face that he gurns for us, is straight out of the poisonous mists of colonial history, it’s the pop eyes, it’s Heart of Darkness via Tracey Jordan. And can you see traces of minstrelsy inheritance – how far was Cosby from Jolson, like, actually? How do these histories manifest? Where is the floor? Is there a floor? You know?
And like Patrice O’Neal, whiteness is laid into with fury; this is stuttering performative broke down comedy, with dangerous sharp edges. This is a performance of what comedy is, archly conceptual on one level, but it suffuses the room with danger, puts attitudes on the line — burns us more than roasts us — like the best comedy does.
Ofc, it’s the Barbican in the heart of the City and a lot of the scat stuff bombs tonight, PUSSAY etc, the crowd are wary of being liberal-baited, so you don’t get the depth and textures of the whole thing. And we’re like hens in rows and withering a bit, and it’s really hard to move to the beats that come on because we’re disparate thinky bodies, it’s not chill but, you know, LIFT Festival are into their corporate biz in a way that can fly these guys over.
So the comedian leaps off, and we segue to some really fucking odd drama – a kind of Meyerhold but mostly Brecht with a bit of Southpark – kind of a ridiculous stilted affair.
The bodies move in like slo mo glitchy body popping, like the, what is it, “Mobot” or something – or more like a Donald Glover facial expression from Community; or like a Childish Gambino video if it was stronger about not disappearing into its own posture. This is my reference point for THE SHIPMENT.
Through this we get the story of a boy from the projects who climbed his way to the top through RAP, more specifically through RAPPING about killing white people.
I thought of Vanilla Ice.
And I thought of the impressions of Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen Lawrence, we did in my white state school on the South Coast. Our fantasy was that he released a single called Kill Whitey, with the lyrics: “The black man is proud and mighty; we gotta, we gotta kill whitey”, delivered in racist accents and like NWA poses. We were listening to De la Soul and J5 and a handful of this sort of crossover stuff. My friend Jon had just read Malcolm X’s biography. We were becoming aware of our whiteness.
Which was quite easy on the South Coast. Like an easy project right.
At the turn of the millenium, down on the South Coast, we were singing racist songs about a man whose son had been killed.
At the turn of the millenium we were frightened that a man had his son killed because of race. We were singing racist songs and indulging that thrill of transgression of the privileged, like the satisfactions of misandry, like the liberal hipster comedians who use the N-Word, or those twee guys who used lots of ironic hip hop language while talking about making tea.
My white friend, as a child, wanted to be black. Can I be black like Michael Jackson? he asked his parents, left-wing lawyers in a large house in Brighton.
There’s this phrase Upski used about the “wigga” thing; which from his perspective bore echoes of white slavery. “At least spilt milk has ventured from the container”.
And I think, I haven’t gone very far in my life; and I’m anxious, like the rest of us in the audience.
And so we’re in this stiff story about a rapper. This parable about Gangsta myths of hyper-capitalism, in a way, something like Arturo Ui filtered through Jay Z or Dre biography. A fantasy mobility rags to riches story, which culminates in this total Drake moment of the exhaustion of affluenza — this guy made it, he’s loaded, and he’s fucking empty.
The melancholy of Drake, so beautiful, so kinda dumb, like a rabbit painted all gold up over its breathing.
Poor rabbit. Poor Drake. Metaphor for the dumb sad inflations of endless growth and exploitation capitalism. #teamdrake #dumb #degrassi
It’s proper funny tho, and there’s a funny THE WIRE reference guys, guys, guys. There’s a funny THE WIRE reference.
And the period when the stage hands are taking this irreponsibly slow & deliberate length of time to set up a simple living room set, and the bass is pumping, and it’s measuring the kind of attentiveness of the piece. It wants us to look very closely at what’s coming next, which is a kind of farce playing a very odd game with broadness.
How closely can we look at a play? Look at the mechanics, says Young Jean Lee. And it reveals itself as something a bit, idk, repressed?
And under cover of the genuine lulz, the mechanics have us look at our own readings.
Look at those, says says Young Jean Lee.
What adheres in the object of race?
It’s like Clybourne Park but none of the fetishy realism. And none of the pomposity, not self-important, not self-consciously clever, really well made but not well-made, y’know.
There is this flat affect, and this hysteria – it’s this our millenial thing, if we call it that. This alt lit Tao Lin’s Tai Pei kind of thing. And these two polar places leave vistas of things unsaid.
When we can’t be in rooms together; is that Theatre?
What are we, when we’re trapped in our bodies and the significations of our skin; what are we when we’re disconnected from our social bodies?
And all these clipped lines, and the inadequacy of language vies with the absence of poetry – we’re all struck dumb by Google’s wordplay.
But then DRAMAH returns like something repressed maybe, THE GUY WHOSE PARTY IT IS mentally implodes, like something we cut off with our communications systems, it really is somewhere in something we can’t get to – the dinner party is the intense theatre and we might be going mad.
Abigails Party via GIRLS.
And then this race-reading TWIST AT THE END.
I haven’t told you about the super weird event which comes at the end of the GANGSTA PARABLE ACT.
Here the alienated drama breaks down into a strange hypnotic insanely sexual performance from THE WOMAN ACTOR; this affective labour and phallic writhing, intense like THE COMEDIAN, more affective labour for our pleasure, and a bunch of the dudes around me cough and invisible tensions run through them.
And this tableau decomposes into THREE OF THE ACTORS, as the house lights come gently up, just looking at each of us, standing there silently scanning the stalls, and their eyes growing lighter and wearier; and I wanted to cry.
And from there, standing still, delivering this beautiful little three part harmony pop song; this kind of indified plainchant from the fields?
And in the vibrating thrilling airlessness of SHIPMENT this really distant melancholic beauty.
Here’s some pretty ropey criticism: this is the first BLERD theatre I’ve seen. Which is a kind of pop cultural tag, for some sort of continuation of Afro-modernism after modernism maybe, after art, and is dealing a bunch of the same old same old in newer terrains – it’s not something we have much of over here with an invisible black middle class, maybe.
Can we talk about blackness, and whiteness, without talking about class?
SHIPMENT is seriously fucking good, the cast are incredible, Young Jean Lee is seriously fucking yes. It sold out on this run — I’m sorry, that’s a shitty kicker, but we’ll definitely let you know if it comes back.
In the meantime, if your super-keen, a video of a 2009 Seattle production of the show is available at Ontheboards.tv for $5 rental.
You can also read our interview with Young Jean Lee.