BWW Reviews: Weirdness Achieved in THE SHIPMENT

Nobody really says we get the theater we deserve (they do say that about government, though). But that's one way to approach The Shipment, the purposely provocative current show at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.

Our national conversation on race has been strained in recent months to say the least and the proof is reflected in this scathing work by Young Jean Lee.

After pre-show mix that freely mixes in reports of police shootings and uprisings, we are ready for what comes next: A ensemble dance work from the five cast members, dressed in black, with black high top Converse sneakers. Though they even manage to pull up an audience member up to dance themselves (or at least stand on stage), the segment doesn't quite add up; movement is not the chief skill of the cast.

So suddenly, there's a standup routine with material so caustic you almost think it's devised to not just challenge the audience, but drive them out of the theater.

It's as if Darius McCall's delivery is meant to conjure up a third rate Chris Rock, touching on issues of race much more clumsily (in what we assume are Lee's own words), where name calling and race baiting is seen as a way to even the score. What he really wants to address in his standup, he says, is something else entirely: poop. So let's just say he's a young man with very limited options (and the audience? Even fewer).

There were a few laughs just at the outrageousness of much of what he was saying, and no applause when he left.

It's followed by an ensemble presentation of a story that seems so stylized and simplistic as to be compared with those high school productions on "issues" that are parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

In it, a young man wants to be a rapper, finds himself selling drugs, and then in jail, assisted by props that are drawings held up of drugs, gold chains or flying bullets. About the time a character named Crackhead John starts talking like a Muppet, you're beginning to think that this exaggerated morality tale isn't supposed to be taken seriously at all.

At any rate, it's over soon enough and what had been a sleek empty set by Michael Dove is dressed with an apartment set in lieu of an intermission.

There comes the longest part of The Shipment (the title of which, like most of the play, eludes me). It's a kind of strange scene about a man who invites some friends over for a party that turns strange when he turns morose, says he's poisoned everybody with drinks, but then says he was kidding.

And that's not the biggest twist (and entire point) of the segment, which is something you can sort of see coming.

The Shipment wouldn't make any sense at all if it weren't for an explanation by dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe in the program. There, you realize that Lee intended to devise a "modern postmodern minstrel show" which has the same structure of old minstrel shows, apparently, with song at dance to start, comedy to follow and a one-act play - all freely using stereotypes, updated for today.

It's quite a good cast, ready for whatever weirdness is thrown their way (and there is a lot). Shannon Dorsey as the only woman of the five seems burdened by gender stereotypes as well amid the last that includes Mark Hariston, Gary L. Perkins III, Dexter Hamlett and McCall.

The director, who is named Psalmayne 24, has his hands full trying to decide whether to push the excesses of the script. He mostly goes along with it, expecting the audience to do so well.

The dramaturg concludes that "if, over the course of the play, you find yourself uncomfortable, paranoid or watchful of everyone...it's working."

It's an odd dramatic goal, but based on that criterion, I guess it works.

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

THE SHIPMENT runs through June 13 at the Forum Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1390 or visit forum-theatre.com.

Photo: Gary L. Perkins III, Darius McCall and Shannon Dorsey. Photo by C. Stanely Photography.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

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