Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company – The Shipment
You know you’re not colorblind, right? Young Jean Lee continuously reminds you of this fact as her piece “The Shipment” pushes and pulls at racial identity, stereotypes, perception and memes. The Shipment, divided into five parts, is smart, funny, and painfully insightful. It opens with actor/dancers Mikeah Ernest Jennings and Prentice Onayemi who dance and spring around the stage in ecstatic and playful fashion. It’s disarmingly joyful and extremely likable. It’s a perfect prologue and an extremely skillful misdirection that puts the viewer into a space where they won’t know exactly what to expect from piece.
The short opening dance is followed by Douglas Scott Streater, who comes on stage and does a caricature of a stand-up comedian. Think “Night at the Apollo” or Chris Rock and you capture the essence of Streater’s piece. “You think I want to be here talking about race? I want to be talking about poop!” exclaims Streater. It’s an important moment addressing the core issue of exactly where the issue of race lives. It poses the question ‘must a black comedian joke about race because he’s black?’ or maybe even the underlining question ‘can someone who isn’t black create a show dealing with seemingly black specific issues?’ Douglas Scott Streater is electrifying in this part of The Shipment, extremely likable and extremely funny. He makes it easy to completely lose the sense that you’re watching an experimental theater piece and actually believe that you’re at a stand-up show.
Streater’s stand-up routine is followed by an odd robotic and cartoonish lampoon of racial stereotypes. It’s done with a minimalist set, in a quasi improv style. The piece reminded me of seeing long form improv at the Improv Olympics in Chicago or perhaps seeing a segment of South Park written and directed by Young Jean Lee. While this wasn’t my favorite part of the show, it was oddly amusing in its outlandish style and rhythm and the actors are so likable in ‘The Shipment’ that it’s a joy to follow along whatever they do.
No sooner do you feel like you’ve got a grip on ‘The Shipment’ than Young Jean Lee pries your fingers away and shows you that you don’t. The cartoonish farce is followed by an extremely naked and beautiful song (Modest Mouse’s Dark Center of the Univese). Three of the actors stand at the edge of the stage, with the house lights raised, piercingly staring at each and every member of the audience as they sing in harmony. During this part of the show Young Jean Lee forces you out of your role of observer of this work, you can’t just comfortably sit in the dark laughing and clapping, saying “they’re not talking about me.” The song is hauntingly beautiful and having the piercing gaze of an actor meet your eyes is a unique theatrical experience that is wonderful, amazing and terrifying all at once.
The final piece of ‘The Shipment’ is a seemingly conventional one act play that takes place at a cocktail party in an upscale apartment. As with the other pieces of the show, the ensemble cast works extremely well together here. It’s expertly performed and very entertaining. There are a number of twists and turns in the final piece of the evening which are best left unspoiled, but as with the rest of the work, expect to have your perception turned on its head.
Young Jean Lee’s ‘The Shipment’ is an example of how successful a piece of experimental theater can be. In many ways it’s extraordinarily confrontational, dealing with deep issue of racism and racial identity, but it’s done so well, with such a charismatic and likable cast that it doesn’t turn the audience off or push them away. It’s easy to shock an audience and push at their comfort zone, but it’s a lot more difficult to make them laugh and carry them along while you push at their comfort zone. Young Jean Lee and her company of actors accomplish this is an amazing way, with a night of theater that should not be missed.
For more Information on Young Jean Lee Theater Company:
- TBA:09 Young Jean Lee Theater Company ‘The Shipment’
- Young Jean Lee Theater Company Site / The Shipment
- Interview with Young Jean Lee
- Video preview of The Shipment
Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods & Philipp Gehmacher/Mumbling Fish – Maybe Forever
I knew I was in trouble when PICA’s guest artistic director Cathy Edwards introduced Meg Stuart’s piece as “wonderfully atmospheric”. To me that’s often code for a piece which has a lot of style and very little substance. Unfortunately, Meg Stuart’s ‘Maybe Forever” lacked in both style and substance. Opening on an extremely dimly lit stage (I could barely make out anything I was seeing), two figures gyrate, roll around and move on the floor. They’re accompanied by looped audio with sounds of a dock or bay. Yes, it’s ‘atmospheric’, but atmospheric of what? The stage is so dimly lit you can barely see a thing.
Once the lights do finally go up you see the two performers echo some of the movements barely visible before. I wouldn’t call the movement in Maybe Forever dance. The gyrations and frequent arm moves of the piece have little flow, no finesse and very little sense of connection with anything outside the insular world that’s created on stage. These gyrations are occasionally interrupted by singer-songwriter Niko Hafkensch, whose songs aren’t bad but they all seem to blend into one never-ending waltz. His songs begin as enjoyable but they become almost unbearable as the sounds and themes circle back around and around.
At one point Meg Stuart performs some quasi spoken word accompanied by angular gyrations. It comes off as pretentious and self indulgent, an aspect which echoes throughout the entire piece. Sure, I get that Stuart is playing out aspects of her relationships; there are themes of ecstasy, love, hate, death, rape and longing. But the piece seems to have almost no regard for the audience. There are no connecting points, nothing to really grasp on to and certainly nothing to enjoy. It’s theater as therapy for the artist and there’s no pleasure in being a voyeur to it.
Maybe Forever goes on for a full hour and a half, repeating movements and themes over and over and over again only to loop back around and revisit them again. I have no problem with a piece obsessed with its theme. Last year at TBA Lessar The Company did a phenomenal dance piece on the theme of relationships. It’s was beautiful, moving and challenging. This piece never breaks out of its own insular world, never gives the viewer a connecting point or anything more than the same shard of broken dreams on loop. I was a lone boo in a trickle of polite applause. There were turned heads, rude comments and shock over this audible communication of displeasure with the piece. To me, polite applause would have been as disingenuous as the piece itself. (Read – Why Not Boo? by Terry Teachout from the Wall Street Journal, who puts this issue into perspective better than I ever could.)
For more information on Meg Stuart/et al.:
- TBA:09 Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods & Philipp Gehmacher/Mumbling Fish “Maybe Forever”
- Video preview of Maybe Forever
- Damaged Goods
- Why Not Boo? by Terry Teachout