The Shipment forces its (white) audience to contemplate its complicity in perpetuating American racism | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Shipment forces its (white) audience to contemplate its complicity in perpetuating American racism

Prepare to squirm and be destroyed by Red Tape Theatre's revival of Young Jean Lee's play.


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The most intense moment in playwright Young Jean Lee's deliberately uncomfortable 2008 play, now being revived by Red Tape Theatre, happens in silence. Midway through the show, four out of the five members of director Wardell Julius Clark's all-black cast step forward in a line. They point their gaze at the gallery—first one white face, then another, and yet another—as the house lights at the Ready's 65-seat black box gradually come on. The actors stare point-blank into the crowd. And stare. And stare some more.

Tensions abate, briefly, in the second half, but from the play's outset until that climactic beat ends, it's sheer audience destruction. Things kick off with a soft-shoe number evoking minstrelsy by dancers Sheldon Brown and Hunter Bryant. Soon the scene shifts, with a variety show's random lilt, to Marcus D. Moore's rage-filled stand-up comedy diatribe against all things bigoted. Moore lets you squirm under his heat, goads you to nervous laughter, makes you applaud your own thrashing. The third segment is a stilted coming-of-age vignette rife with willfully penny-ante hood tropes: hip-hop poisonous, drugs evil, prison inevitable, black death a statistic. Eric Gerard is robotic as rapper Omar, mock-gratifying the commoditizing gaze of white patronage.

Then comes the stare. As a white audience member, you feel bombarded, implicated, and vulnerable. The weight of accusation in the room summons a tremendous guilt, one that refuses to die down, refuses even to be named. But acknowledgment is a start, and it's good, however ugly it feels at first, to sit with those feelings.   v

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