The Point of the Play Is Not To Soothe

Review of The Shipment at On the Boards by Marissa B-T

The atmosphere is one of light joviality; the patrons of On the Boards anticipate something great. Most seats are full, the theater is humming with conversation-- then silence pervades, and The Shipment begins with a burst of light and movement. In the opening few minutes, the joviality remains, but alongside it arises an air of surprise and pensiveness registering in the faces of some viewers.

Aundré Chin and Douglas Scott Streater in The Shipment at On the Boards.

The Shipment, written and directed by Young Jean Lee, is currently playing in Seattle at On the Boards. The show consists of various theatre formats designed to address and reevaluate black stereotypes in contemporary culture. The opening dance routine, choreographed by Faye Discroll, energetically lights up the stage and breaks the so-called mold of black choreography. This performance sets the audience up for emotional polarization that is a key component throughout. In its entirety, The Shipment is a mere ninety minutes, yet its purposefully haphazard sequence of performances delivers a range of feelings and experiences. It should be mentioned that there is also wide range of profanity, as well (especially in Douglas Scott Streater's Standup Guy monologue); and anyone uncomfortable with hearing vulgarity every few minutes need not attend. The point of the play is not to soothe or solely entertain the audience. The language is intended to rile listeners; it is part of an attempt by Young Jean Lee's Theater Company to provide a new window onto their subject. Lee and the diverse, complementary cast of five blend a series of widely varying monologues, dances, and scenarios portraying common representations of the black identity in media. This first startling portion gives way to silence, into which, beautiful three-part harmony suddenly sounds. An innovative a cappella song divides the sections of the play. While blending seamlessly with the rest, its introspection tones down the intense stylization and drama of the first segment. Here, removal of the fourth wall serves to movingly connect actors with reality and the people sitting before them. Act II (if one can place that label on it), is distinct in style and content from preceding episodes. It would be unfair to reveal much; simply know that Act II is rooted in characters that each actor wanted to and had never had the opportunity to play. Therefore, as might be expected of so talented a cast, the roles are infused with an extra vibrancy. The last scene, as noted during an interview session afterward, is not about anything in particular. It is more the theme and potent conclusion that matter here.

The Shipment was a more than usually collaborative effort between playwright/director, actors, and other members of the design team. Costume designer Roxana Ramseur's work is marvelous in conveying the several contrasting personalities each actor takes on. Suits, party dresses, colorful vests, evening gowns-- each costume perfectly aided in fleshing out each character and the role they had in a given scene. Lee succeeds brilliantly in realizing her concept. The process itself of formulating The Shipment is intriguing, with more material contributed by the actors than by the unconventional playwright/director/editor/creative stylist.

- Marissa B-T
Thursday, October 1st, 2009

The Shipment
Through Sunday, October 4th
On The Boards
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