I first saw Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in 2009. That was the first tour of the show, with its original cast, reunited this week for a run at the Barbican as part of LIFT. It went on to tour the US and Europe, even travelling to Australia and East Asia, but it’s only now making its UK début. Why has Britain been so late to the Young Jean Lee party, I ask Young Jean Lee. She speculates that “theatre in the UK is more on the conservative side”.
“I don’t know a lot of experimental American theatre companies that come to the UK. Elevator Repair Service brought Gatz over and the Wooster Group have taken work here but they’re both companies that have been around for a long time so my impression is that it takes a while. I think the UK might be similar to the US, in that sense, because we don’t tend to bring a lot of foreign experimental theatre companies over either.”
In its years of travelling, The Shipment has found the world around changed. Since the play first started its development process in 2006, the discussion around race in the US has changed hugely.
“When I started working on the show, Americans didn’t want to talk about race at all. Then when Obama started running for President and these issues exploded. By the time our show opened, people were used to talking about these issues. If the show had happened before Obama, people would have been less receptive but the racism that was being directed at him during the campaign made it really obvious that we don’t live in a post-racial society.”
The play is less concerned with obvious, tub-thumbing, card-carrying racism than it is with pervasive underlying racial prejudice. I mention a recent survey in Britain claiming that a third of people are racially prejudiced and that these levels have been on the rise since the turn of the start of the millenium. The media have been presenting this as a matter for concern but could it actually be a good sign? Are people being more honest?
“It’s great when people admit to being racially prejudiced. Everyone is racially prejudiced. We’ve grown up with brainwashing. Our society is racist. Claiming that you have no prejudice, that you’re colour blind, that’s so unhelpful because it closes down any dialogue. I think, if you say that, you’re in denial.”
The challenge that The Shipment throws out to its audience is that of revealing its own racial prejudices. Though this is done in a very playful way that doesn’t feel in any way aggressive, I wonder if Lee feels that the show is confrontational at all:
“If it’s confrontational, it’s confrontational in a weird way. Most of the show is designed to make the audience not know what’s going on. It’s too unstable to be confrontational. It’s only confrontational in the sense that when people see it they find themselves confronting things inside themselves. All of my plays have different relationships with their audiences. So, We’re Gonna Die was an act of comfort. Untitled Feminist Show was like a party. The Shipment was supposed to make people uncomfortable.”
Identity is a core concern of all drama because of the very act of representation, but none more so than on the American stage in the 20th century. Miller, Williams, Mamet, O’Neill and Shepard, the great white male pantheon of US playwriting have grappled with archetypes that are central to that psyche: the salesman, the college football star, the cowboy, the Southern belle, etc. Towards the end of that century, experimental companies like The Wooster Group, of which Lee is now an associate artist, have taken it upon themselves to deconstruct these dramatic investigations on their own terms by performing The Crucible on acid or having a white woman in black face performing The Emperor Jones.
Following this experimental, mischievous legacy into the 21st Century, Lee’s generation of Downtown New York playwrights have been taking a more visual and theatrical contemporary approach to some of these same issues. Like the Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones, Branden Jacob Jenkins’s 2010 play Neighbours used the shocking power of black-face to stir up controversy. Without resorting to similar tactics, The Shipment uses the structure of minstrelsy as a tradition of variety entertainment. It means that you never know quite what’s coming next. One minute you think you’re laughing with it, that you’ve been given that license, the next you’re not so sure what you should be doing. The rules keep changing as you go along and role playing is a constant theme.
This new wave of plays on identity themes has opened up new dialogue, according to Lee, who refers to her latest play Straight White Men, a naturalistic three act play about, well, straight white men.
“It’s a very new thing for Straight White Men to have to think of themselves as having a specific identity as straight white men. The reason straight white men get so angry with identity politics is that they have just been the default up to now. So they’ll say why can’t we all just be people. When people say “why can’t we just all be people” I don’t get annoyed because I don’t want that. Of course, I want that. I get annoyed because we’re so far from that point.”
The Shipment is at the Barbican as part of LIFT until 14th June.
Photo: Paula Court and AJ Zanyk