Final Prompt

In Young Jean Lee’s piece The Shipment, Lee tries to show readers the constructions surrounding race in theater and what type of roles black people are allowed to play. Lee does this by contrasting two parts of her show. In the first, she constructs the blackness of her actors. They are all performing in black bodies, which have immediate cultural implications on their own, but the actors tell black stories, or rather the black stories that are allowed to be performed in mainstream entertainment, using stylized gestures and speaking styles to consciously construct the blackness on their bodies. Gender is also constructed in this way, with stories of black men and black women put explicitly on bodies of the corresponding sex through a stylized mimesis and dress. Many stereotypes about black people are satirized, which the audience (which I assume is majority “woke white”) laughs at in an “of course I don’t subscribe to these stereotypes” kind of way. In the second part of the play, all of the actors play out a dinner scene. Although nothing about race is hinted at specifically, the underlying assumption is that this is a race play. The characters all have complex personalities and relationships with each other, but all of these pieces seem to link back to their race, like the alcoholism, drug use, lack of fulfillment, and mental health issues, which I even was quick to attribute to generational trauma. The gag is, at the end we find out that the actors were playing white people this entire time. Lee intelligently satires the kinds of stories black people are allowed to portray while also showing that bodies of color are attributed so much meaning even when they are on stage. This play questions if there is neutrality in bodies on stage, which bodies can achieve neutrality on stage, and how we construct different types of bodies even without added information from the official performance.

This correlates extremely well with Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity. In her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Butler writes, “That the body is a set of possibilities signifies (a) that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence, and (b) that its concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities.” (Butler 2) Although the race and gender of the performers is performed, the social and historical constraints that their physical bodies are understood through limit the different avenues through which they can act. For example, when Douglas Scott Streater does his stand-up comedy bit in the beginning of the piece, he performs a black male by speaking words about the black male experience, using a particular dialect/accent, and by adopting a funny, blunt, and admonishing comedic style that is used by money current black comedians. In this way, neither Douglas’s nor his character’s “interior essence[s]” are taken into account. The audience is perceiving the performance of a black man by a someone who appears genetically male with black skin. Douglas acts a script given by society to people who look like him. While Dougla’s skin demands the script he is given in order to be understood by society, the script is strengthened by Douglas’s performance of it. Gender and race here carry “historical possibilities” of performance, Douglas performs them according the cultural implications already attached to his physical features.

Through the entire first half, the actors embody different types of black stereotypes with a detached, exaggerated, and comedic style. The large movements, bulky visible microphones, and exaggerated megaphone-style of projection make it impossible for the audience to forget that this is all a performance. The performance cannot even become close to naturalistic because the actors are all dressed in formal-wear. It is much easier, then, to see the changes in the actors’ movements and words when they embody different characters. Amelia Workman performs black motherhood by putting her hand on her hip and saying “I do not work three jobs,” and “I am boring.” Mikéa Ernest Jennings and Aundré Chin perform black boyhood by mimicking basketball movements and beatboxing sounds, and by being shot and getting into drugs. The actors’ black bodies already carry all of these meanings, stories, and stereotypes, but the performance of these things reinforces the ideas already culturally imposed onto their skin.

The inability for these actors to shed their blackness can be seen really quickly when Prentice Onayemi says, “Well, I’m a white person.” In this moment, the audience laughed because obviously, Onayemi is not a white person. He was wearing black skin and swaying in a mock “gangster” fashion when he said this. The sentiments, though, of Onayemi’s character (wanting to cuddle with a cat) are not associated with black masculinity. Onayemi’s cannot fulfill whiteness because of the physical black body performing it, and Onayemi’s character’s “inner essence” conflicts with the cultural limitations in understanding and expected performance of his body. This carries into the latter part of the play, which is more naturalistic in comparison. Until the end, the story of the second part is quite neutral. Five friends are at a party, and a host of conflicts within the group upset the party. The friends are dressed in formal wear and discuss upper middle class issues. Although the words and the situations are all neutral, or white since white is neutral in American society today, the characters’ problems are linked to blackness in the audience’s minds. The previous satirical performances of blackness only make audience members more aware of their biases towards black people in terms of drugs and mental health at the end when they realize that the actors were playing white people..The generational issues of the race follow the actors as they transition from playing black people to white people, showing that black people cannot perform whiteness or neutrality because their skin links them culturally to historical accepted notions of blackness.

One thought on “Final Prompt

  1. Hi Ruva,
    In your essay, you write ” they are all performing in black bodies” which is fascinating to me. There are several ideas and concepts you could reference from our class, which would help clarify some of the ideas you present in your essay. If performativity tells us that the color of bodies is connected to ideas about race through repeated performances – then what does it mean to “perform in a black body?” This is a question that is answered by referencing histories of black performance – like the Spike Lee montage I showed to the class from Bamboozled. Performing in a black body has historically meant being relegated to performing in what has become racialized forms — like minstrelcy, hip hop, angry stand-up comedy about raced binarys (white people do this, black people do that). When you write about the exaggerated way in which Young Jean Lee points out the expectations that surround the form or when performers fail to live up to those expectations, we as the audience can see the contingent link between forms of performance and bodies we know to be “black” because she uses Brechtian techniques — which allow one to experience the historical form and its critique by means of a double consciousness. Here in this essay, I had asked you to use the theorists to name the forms and ideas that are operative in this piece which explain how we can understand peformativity of race and gender through its dramatugy and theatrical choices. Brecht would be a useful reference when you write so much about “detached” and “comedic” style. Brecht is also referenced in the episodic dramaturgy where every sequence can stand on its own, but the accumulation of “black” and “white” theatrical forms show that theater is complicit in the production of the ideas of race as well as that the repetition of those forms consolidates this understanding as natural and normal. Finally, you use the word “neutral” to reference “the second part of the story” but in class for the last month, I have been emphasizing that realism – while it now is a dominant form – has been used to show the humanity of the white middle and upper class (because of its focus on depth of character and domestic interactions) but has historically excluded people of color and immigrants from that form (until recently). Realism is indeed not neutral and that’s Lee’s point — the crises in realistic plays (mental health, family conflict, economic advancement) have been shown as “white people problems” and so now there is dissonance when black-skinnned people are acting out this as a representation of their lives. White theatricality has become “netural” through the operations of performativity. Lee uses Brechtian techniques to show how theatrical forms have fused properties of behavior and race to specific bodies. The work is all about historical forms of theater reiterated over and over that have given us the idea of raced and gendered behavior.

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