The playwright’s headshot tells you more than most: A stylish, black-clad, Korean-American woman eyes the camera warily, arms wrapped around herself, shoulders hunching anxiously inward, a tambourine—wait, a tambourine?—clutched in one hand. She manages to look bold, anxious, mischievous all at once. That’s the reputation Young Jean Lee has made for herself professionally, too. She’s a writer with a potent voice and an appetite for topics and approaches that, she says, set both her and her audiences on edge.
Forum Theatre’s production of Lee’s The Shipment sure bears that reputation out. It’s rude, provocative, smart, and slick—a postmodern minstrel show, in the words of director Psalmayene 24, that does anything but tap-dance around the subjects of race and expectations. Structured in three dissimilar sections staged in three divergent styles, it adds up to one distinctly uncomfortable comedy. In a brisk and intermission-less 90 minutes, The Shipment invites theatergoers to confront both the assumptions it points out and the ones it deliberately ignores until its final, puckish table-flip—a “What? Oh!” surprise that left me squirming and grinning at the same time.
The Shipment begins with a stand-up comic, or more precisely an actor (Darius McCall) playing a stand-up comic, talking about how much he doesn’t want to talk about race. The second movement—the evening is more a thematically driven quasi-musical meme-riff than a coherent drama concerned with plot—enlists the show’s all-black ensemble in a parade of the types black actors are often asked to play (at-risk teen, street-corner drug hustler, video ho, nurturing single mom, etc., all of them conjured in the exaggerated, presentational style associated with performances in blackface). Finally, there’s a cocktail party depicted with a kind of lulling naturalism, right up until things Get Real—and then dissolve into a chaos of implication when Lee deploys that slightly sadistic twist.
Psalmayene 24 and his cast have staged all this with thoughtful precision and what seems to be a near-miraculous lack of self-consciousness, especially given the show’s peculiar demands. But while that polish, plus the choice of subject and the general stylistic brio, would be enough to make for a perk-up evening in the theater, it’s authorial chutzpah that makes The Shipment a play that pays ongoing dividends. In each section, Lee serves up just enough structure and arc to provoke the hope that something like a definite point of view will emerge—then abandons the pretense of story, leaving behind the sinking feeling that we may never shed preconception to see clearly what and who is before us. All perception involves distortion, she seems to have concluded, but when it comes to race and identity, the corrupting lens may forever be the American eye.
8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $30–$35. (240) 644-1390. forum-theatre.com.