Scathing reviews are a rarity in regional theater criticism because they are rarely needed. At the least, most of the area's companies are competent. At best, their work rises to the standards of New York and London.
But on Sept. 3, when first-year theater critic Pamela Vesper went to Common Ground Theatre to review The Shipment, she walked out at the end of the second scene. Though she shared a byline with writing partner Kurt Benrud, Vesper was the sole author of the review published the next day in the newsletter Triangle Review and reprinted on the website Triangle Arts and Entertainment.
Vesper's review called The Shipment "flat-out filth" and "racist hate speech," describing the stand-up comic sequence that provoked her walkout as "insulting" and "degrading, disgusting and ridiculous." Referencing controversial works of art by Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, Vesper concluded, "This is not art. It's elephant dung."
In a rare turn of events, The Shipment's producers, new black theater group Black Ops Theatre Company and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, widely publicized Vesper's pan rather than trying to bury it. In a Sept. 10 email to the theater community, Little Green Pig artistic director Jaybird O'Berski wrote, "This is the kind of review we live for, and it proves an essential point about Young Jean Lee's excoriating comedy: we are still petrified to talk about race in America."
Black Ops artistic director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell told me, "When we thought about it, we realized this review actually helped us more than hurt us. So we sent it out."
After O'Berski sent his letter, Triangle Arts and Entertainment's editor in chief, Susie Potter, apologized in a friends-only Facebook post, writing, "We would NEVER condone a reviewer leaving a show and are sorry to have published a review where this grievous type of misjudgment was involved." Five days later, on Sept. 15, the website replaced Vesper's review with an apology almost identical to Potter's.
It wasn't The Shipment's first negative local review. Veteran critic Kate Dobbs Ariail reviewed Lee's 2010 production at UNC's Memorial Hall for the website Classical Voice of North Carolina. Ariail was "bored" by a production offering no "new insights on black-white relations in the U.S." She concluded that The Shipment was "not conducive to compassion or empathy, and too irritating to provoke critical self-examination."
I first encountered The Shipment when I read the script in August. I noted its unsparing criticism of racism, subtle and overt, in representations of black people in American popular entertainment. Those critiques were far more frank than most previously seen on local stages. Several were aimed directly at the audience, as participants in and curators of the pop culture that perpetuates stereotypes.
At the time, I wondered if there would be walkouts, boos or shouted objections from the audience, like those Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, now running at PlayMakers (see our review), endured on Broadway in 2012. The most I could guarantee was a difference of opinion.
Roy C. Dicks' News & Observer review noted the "extremely coarse" stand-up comic but praised The Shipment's "insightful humor and surprising twists" in "call[ing] out all racial biases." My INDY review found one section too polished, and dinged another scene's pacing, but lauded a show that asked, in every scene, why our culture is doomed to replicate the stalest racial signifiers—and what it will take to finally stop.
The Shipment seeks to initiate a direct, confrontational discourse on its subject, and Vesper's review responded in kind. Her analysis was actually headed in the right direction until it ended prematurely. She described Lee's script as "insulting." Indeed, the unvarnished truth-telling in the stand-up comic monologue is riddled with racial insults. Portraying the comic, Ron Lee McGill voiced usually unspoken, offensive racial assumptions and prejudices. The monologue is chockablock with open references to scatology and sexual deviance.
So, yes: This should offend any reasonable person. That is a fundamental part of Young Jean Lee's point. Throughout The Shipment, she articulates a series of truly demeaning insults—to the body, brain, spirit and soul—inflicted on black people by years of stereotypes.
In order to write about such negative representations, a critic must know about them. But one way in which white privilege manifests itself in our culture is by sheltering a white community from the true history of neglected adjacent communities.
Lee's second scene targets the genre of "blue" comedians, such as "Dolemite" Rudy Ray Moore, Redd Foxx and "Wildman Steve" Gallon, who made their bones from the '50s to the '70s, reinforcing cultural beliefs that black people were somehow uniquely vulgar, obsessed with lewdness, bodily functions and profanity. Lee cranks that cultural reference to an absurd degree and then fires it back at the audience.
But in our Sept. 10 interview, Vesper, a white person born in the 1970s, claimed no knowledge of that genre or the comedians who worked the Chitlin' Circuit. As such, she had no hope of placing the takeoff in the proper context. Lacking a framework for the scene's vitriol and smut, she focused on her personal outrage instead of the larger, more serious cultural damage at which Lee's racial broadsides are aimed.
Anger and pain are rarely a critic's best friends. The irony is that a lack of information on black culture is one of the problems The Shipment seeks to remedy. Lee's work—some of the toughest love I've seen onstage in years—informs the unaware of racial slanders still being blindly, broadly perpetuated.
Some have criticized Vesper for writing about a show she walked out on, but I have written about a handful of shows I have walked out on in my 21-year career. A critic has the right to leave a production when one is convinced its failings are unredeemable or that one's continued presence legitimizes an unethical enterprise. But when a show provokes that most extreme objection, the production's fundamental competency—or the critic's—are called into question. In such cases, we are obliged to then convince our audience that we made the right decision. Vesper's review tried to do this and failed.
Vesper, an inexperienced critic, didn't recognize the need to inform herself about a culture not her own before writing for the public about it. Yet that wasn't the only grievous misjudgment here. After all, it was an editor who sent a critic without adequate knowledge of black culture to review a show about it, and then didn't seek verification of the review's most drastic conclusion: an allegation of "racist hate speech" that mistook the act of disclosing racism for racism itself.
In our August interview, Holloway-Burrell lamented the lack of local black theater critics. I am acutely aware of a silence in this conversation that can only be filled by a chorus of black voices. Would a black critic catch the cultural references Vesper missed? What would he or she see that well-intentioned, mostly older white critics don't?
I do not know, but I am listening. I will be listening especially closely when Black Ops hosts a public forum on theater criticism, "Operation: BABBLE ON," at 8 p.m. Friday at Mule, a new rehearsal and performance space in The Regulator Bookshop.
Rookie critics make mistakes. Clearly, Vesper experienced the insult intended by The Shipment's script. But she personalized the experience, blinding her to the much greater suffering of black people that the play's insults address. Vesper challenged them as an individual affront rather than an affront to all of us. Close, but wrong.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rite of refusal"