Undermain Theatre closes its season with a variety show directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr. The Shipment, by Obie-winning playwright Young Jean Lee, delivers a boatload of black comedy that’s not black and white, concerning blacks and whites. Critically, it is a moving target; moving more when it isn’t targeting and most when it combines the contradictory layers of race relations in which our country is awash.
The image on the program shows the layout of slaves in the hold of a ship. The striking geometrical treatment of humans as if they were identical stackable commodities is arresting enough but when turned vertically it becomes architectural, like a door or stained glass window. Suddenly this is the portal that defines what passes through: a sort of sieve of misery. Upon further examination, one of the cookie cutter slave outlines has been changed to a top-hatted, white-gloved minstrel. The differentiation of that one is as damning as the overall image. It is this kind of layered design that is characteristic of the successes in the show.
The play almost peaks in the opening dance number. Christopher Piper takes the bare stage to strains of Semisonic’s “F.N.T.” Sound designer Bruce DuBose has pumped the sound to concert-level clarity. Never has Semisonic sounded this good. Piper attacks the dance with gusto and looks great under Steve Woods lights. But for all of Piper’s aplomb, his stage mate Adam A. Anderson stands staring still in judgment. That is until the nature of competition takes over and they enter into entertaining the crowd as rivals first and then as a team. They succeed alternately at eliciting cheers from the crowd. In the midst of this genuine competition to engage and entertain, choreographer Millicent Johnnie folds in forms from minstrelsy. Innocent becomes complicated. Now it is harder to see past the matching suits and skin color. The stereotypes pass in stereo, diverging and converging the resonations from the Blues Brothers to the Hines brothers, from black to white and back again, but always with intent to entertain.
The same cannot be said with the next section: Akron Watson as a super-raunchy stand-up comic. His precursors may be Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor but his material makes him the end of the line. Though he carried a third of the crowd to the end of the act, most fell out a third of the way through and those who laughed throughout seemed more intent on supporting the player than hearing the play.
Opening nights have a strained heterogeneity in any case, but this show was more divided than usual. Granted the critics are as biased an audience as the well-wishers, but rarely is the gulf so broad between the two. There may have been more theater in the audience between the groups than onstage during the stand up. The section makes a comment about black comics who patronize their own stereotype while complaining about it, i.e. taking racism to the bank. But while the point is made the laughers steer the event dangerously close to committing the same foul. The diversity of reaction in the audience is symptomatic of good art and bad art alike, however. If everyone is feeling the same, the chances are high that it isn’t art at all. It’s manipulation.
There is more to this division than Watson’s difficult task of delivering another comic’s material or that the material is revolting. Unlike the show’s logo or the opening dance, playwright Lee (an Asian-American woman) is on the offensive, literally. She’s dividing the audience not only with bias-skewering rants but also with jokes about poop and pedophilia. This splatter-painting approach makes it harder to hear the conditions and contradictions that have created the filth-spouting creature. Watson can’t be faulted for his commitment to the task, though.
The next section is a retake on the tired and true rapper-on-the-rise story. From the mean streets to the mean beats, David Jeremiah plays Omar the Boy with a dream. What stalls the stale from creeping into the well-worn narrative is the meta-comic underdelivery of the lines á la an elementary school Pilgrim’s Pageant for Thanksgiving. Every line is declaimed with self-conscious over-enunciation. It is somewhere between Teen Girl Squad and Mitch Hedberg. (Go ahead and Google.) After the thrashing of the stand-up comic, this skit feels like a softball pitch thrown for pity’s sake, but it’s appreciated all the same. The entire cast perfectly underplays to comedic payoff but Chirstopher Piper wins extra funsies as Desmond, the drug dealer, who wants a cat.
Next is an a capella rendition of Modest Mouse’s “Dark Center of the Universe.” The all black ensemble stands examining the audience for a long moment before they begin. The music twists in harmonies as the lines are repeated over and again. The meanings of the original words pick up new resonances when presented this way and the play returns to the intricate power of the opening number.
The final section requires that set and costume designer Rachel Finn’s stage and cast be adorned with contemporary apartment ubiquities and similar clothes respectively. David Jeremiah plays Thomas, whose social event ratchets tensions past uncomfortable to sadistic. The scenario isn’t farther fetched than some sitcoms and the tone is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but something seems off. The reason is revealed in an ending that smacks of the gimmicky but reinforces the evening’s themes. Whether the ensemble gave it away from the get-go is debatable.
Undermain has produced, yet again, a work as difficult to define as the ideas it dredges. The evening is unsettling as much for its content as for its enjoyability. It’s not all fun and games but that doesn’t mean the games can’t be fun. Laughter is a human cry for community. So strong is its pull that when heard, we respond without deciding if we should or even why.
With The Shipment, Undermain may be crying all the way to the bank.