Young Jean Lee’s theater piece, “The Shipment,” is supposed to make audiences uncomfortable. The script’s use of blatant black and white stereotypes and in-your-face street language at first seems too intense, but the writing is shot through with insightful humor and surprising twists that call out all racial biases.
The co-production by Black Ops Theatre and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern is impressively fierce and comically bold. Five engaging actors fearlessly run with the challenges that co-directors JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell and Jaybird O’Berski set.
Lee’s 2008 script is a 75-minute one-act with three short sketches and one longer one. For the initial three, the actors wear tuxedos, performing on a blank stage. First, two dancers sport minstrel-like smiles as they energetically strut various dance styles. Intermittently, their expressions change to anger and frustration, private feelings about being trapped in the stereotypes.
Next, a brashly beaming stand-up comedian begins blasting the audience with extremely coarse expletives and vulgarities. The unrelenting barrage confirms a stereotype that turns off whites and can embarrass blacks. But the sketch forces viewers to confront their biases, especially after a last-minute revelation.
A teenager’s journey to becoming a rapper fills the third segment. He’s beset by drug dealers, bad cops, prison inmates and shady promoters along the way. The actors’ deadpan delivery seems to acknowledge that stereotypes are too ingrained to fight.
The final sketch is set in an upscale apartment, where Thomas has friends over for drinks. The sitcom-like characters are comfortingly familiar, eliciting easy laughs about office affairs, fad diets and drunken fights. But the jaw-dropping twist at the end blasts all complacency.
Ron Lee McGill takes on the comedian with cocky vehemence and Thomas with hilarious but chilling mania. Lazarus Simmons astutely moves the rapper from innocence to decadence, while proving an adept comic as Thomas’ food-phobic friend frightened by a glass of juice.
Three women play multiple roles, mostly men, with admirable skill. JoRose displays flair as a smiling dancer and charm as Thomas’ meek friend, Michael. Jacqueline Markham neatly defines mother, crackhead and comforting co-worker. Drina Dunlap crowns her rapper sidekick and heavenly grandma with scowling, silent Desmond, Thomas’ office mate with a secret passion.
The show can cause walkouts (there was one Thursday), but those who quell the urge should find script and production enlightening as well as entertaining.
Who: Presented by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and Black Ops Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 5, 10-12 and 17-19
Where: Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham
Tickets: $15; $12 seniors and military
Info: 919-384-7817 or littlegreenpig.com