Review: The Shipment, Barbican Centre

Earlier this week, the UK government’s recently appointed culture secretary, Sajid Javid, began his inaugural policy-speech with an act of confession. So, in the spirit of full divulgence, here is mine: I am white. I am middle-class. I am male. I am privileged. Here is another: I have a race problem. You have a race problem. We have a race problem. The self-flagellating spirit of confession is alive and well in Young Jean Lee’s startling new show, The Shipment: a savage indictment on twenty-first century racial politics. Her verdict? The melting pot exists, but boy it’s in need of repairs.

Race is, erm, how should I put this? A thorny issue. Here in Britain we are not averse to staging plays that engage with racial themes, but The Shipment offers up something very different altogether: a play about African-American racial identity, staged by an artist of Korean-American heritage and performed by an all-black cast in a minstrel-esque style. By comparison, theatre about race in the UK is nearly always staged in the form of issue-based, naturalistic drama. As a result, black and Asian actors adopt roles that end up tacitly reinforcing the same stereotypes. In The Shipment, Young Jean Lee’s take-no-prisoners approach and ferocious theatrical energy serve as a powerful fillip to this complacent idea of staging race.

On the one hand then, The Shipment serves as a corrective to this ‘ghettoisation’ of black and Asian performing roles. Divided into two parts, the piece opens with a revue of short, satirical side-swipes aimed at lampooning various ingrained ideas of black racial identity. By consciously invoking a string of culturally ubiquitous stereotypes, Young Jean Lee and her cast turn these wrong-headed yet pervasive notions of ‘blackness’, inside out. With razor-edged wit, the performers enact a series of comic skits (reminiscent of an old-fashioned minstrel show) that satirise a host of racial stereotypes, from a typically foul-mouthed stand-up comedian to a drug-dealer turned gangster rapper. Whereas the minstrel shows of old contained white performers in black-face mocking black people, The Shipment reconfigures the formula in order to ridicule entrenched conceptions of black identity. The audience laugh  not in the way that many of our ancestors did, whose prejudices fed into the burlesque they were watching, but at the hollowness and absurdity of the caricature itself.

In the play’s latter half, the cast re-assemble for a dinner-party scene in which Thomas (Douglas Scott Streater) is gathering friends and colleagues to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. However, what begins as friendly chit-chat soon descends into chaos when Thomas succumbs to an inexplicable emotional breakdown. This scene plays out like a comedy of manners, complete with larger-than-life characters including Mikeah Ernest Jennings as the hypersensitive Omar, and Prentice Onayemi as the side-splittingly impassive Desmond. However, unlike the farcical role-playing of the revue act, Young Jean Lee and the cast allow this scene to play out in a more or less realistic fashion, until an ingeniously deployed ‘twist-reveal’ redefines its entire meaning. Without giving it away, this choice revelation repositions the scene as a kind of reverse-minstrel show, in a wry and scathing send-up of privilege itself.

It’s probably safe to assume that Javid wasn’t thinking of The Shipment when he made his speech calling for greater diversity and inclusion in the arts. But Young Jean Lee’s audacious production puts paid to our persistently lazy pigeon-holing of racial identity. The Shipment is a clarion call that beckons all of us to think and feel with greater sensitivity – both as artists and people.

The Shipment is playing at the Barbican Centre until 14 June as part of LIFT Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre website.