Written by Young Jean Lee. Codirected by Omari Newton and Kayvon Khoshkam. Produced by SpeakEasy Theatre at the Vancity Culture Lab on November 25. Continues to December 2
The Shipment’s tag line states it is “a provocative comedy to shake the ‘woke’ ”, and on that level, it definitely succeeds.
Written by Young Jean Lee, a young, rising-star New York City playwright, the 80-minute show unfolds in two halves—the first inspired by a minstrel show, the second a naturalistic comedy—exploring black identity, racism, and stereotypes, and giving white fragility and privilege the lambasting it so richly deserves (particularly in a city like Vancouver).
I’d like to make some space early on in this review for the fact that The Shipment was not written by a black playwright. The program states that Lee “gave herself the most uncomfortable challenge she could imagine: to make—as a Korean-American—a show about Black identity". Why is that her challenge to take on? The program also explains how the show was made in collaboration with her African-American actors: she created the minstrel portion of the play to address the stereotypes the actors said they had to deal with as performers, and the light comedy was informed by the roles they had always wanted to take on. But it’s only Lee’s name that appears as the playwright. In using the lived experiences but omitting the names of her collaborators, doesn’t The Shipment also further contribute to the exploitation of black identity?
That said, there are very few theatrical performances in this city that feature an all-black cast and it’s a powerful, heartening moment when the five actors first appear on-stage together here.
Kiomi Pyke, making her theatrical debut, is a riveting presence on-stage. Chris Francisque and Adrian Neblett bring a lot of heart and quiet humour to all of their roles. Andrew Creightney proves a standout, particularly in elevating a long skit about a rapper named Omar, relishing the deliberately odd beats with a delightfully awkward charm. Codirector and actor Omari Newton is brilliant, and does a lot of The Shipment’s heavy lifting, first as the comedian who opens the show—vacillating between incisive, blistering commentary on racism and whiteness, and extremely vulgar sex jokes—and then in the last half as Thomas, a 30-year-old man who throws himself the worst birthday party ever.
This is an ambitious work with a wonderful cast that lives up to its tag line. Just the fact that The Shipment had its world premiere in 2008 but took until 2017 to make it to Vancouver is significant. There are so many excellent actors of colour in this city, and the staging of The Shipment—as a means of further diversifying the stage—is a step. But it will be really satisfying to see what the next step looks like, and the one after that, and after that.