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Korean-born theater artist Young Jean Lee (b.1974) has generated much critical attention since she abandoned her Ph.D. program and moved to New York to become a playwright. She's been produced and published and awarded grants and residencies. Some critics have intimated she may be a genius — or at least one of the important playwrights of our time. Continuing its policy of bringing challenging new work to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carolina Performing Arts presented The Shipment, her 2008 work on race relations in America, in a two-night run on February 12th and 13th in Memorial Hall. This piece, directed by Lee and performed by five black or brown members of her company, was certainly challenging, but not perhaps in the way she intended.
As far as I'm concerned, art can be a difficult, as ugly, as painful as it wants to be. What it mustn't be, however, is boring. I was so bored during The Shipment that I committed the theater sin of opening my cell phone to see how much longer I was going to have to put up with this mess. I could not locate in The Shipment anything fresh or anything that offered new insights on black-white relations in the U.S. — but I suspect this was not universally the case. The younger members of the small audience seemed much more receptive, more shocked, and more amused, than older members like myself who had been through all this decades ago. I kept thinking. "Oh, this sounds just like Eldridge Cleaver/Huey P. Newton/ Amiri Baraka/Richard Pryor before the cocaine freebasing incident" — this is not news. But, of course, it is news to you if you were born after the echoes of all that eloquent rage had subsided. The rage itself has apparently not subsided but been amplified and distorted. I suppose that it is news — if true — that things are worse than ever, but it is very depressing news indeed.
Content and startlingly foul language aside, the piece's structure works against one caring much. Following a fabulous opening image and action, a character appears with a microphone, in the guise of a stand-up comedian, and runs through a manipulative little riff to make sure we know he is talking to us, in particular: "Hellooo, Chapel Hill.... Yeah, I'ma Gov'ners Club niggah!... I'm here to talk about race.... I don't want to be talking about race, I'd rather be talking about shit....." This was fairly repellent, but worse was that none of the many characters portrayed by the five (excellent) actors in any of the several skits is actually a person — all exist as signifiers only, representatives of some type or stereotype. It is all a head game, not conducive to compassion or empathy, and too irritating to provoke critical self-examination. The prolonged final scene was most bizarre, involving some sick party games then denied with a shrug and disclaimer: "I'm jus' f**kin' wi'chall."
Maybe that is what the artist is doing. At the very end, at the culmination of a party game called "Library," someone says, "I don't think we'd be talking like this if there were black people in the room." Huh? Apparently, we were supposed to perceive the characters in the final scene as white, because they were using standard English and behaving in a middle-class manner. Maybe that is avant-garde thinking in New York.