Black Ops tears down media stereotypes about race—and confronts its audience—in The Shipment | Theater | Indy Week
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Black Ops tears down media stereotypes about race—and confronts its audience—in The Shipment 

Black Ops in The Shipment

Photo by Rachel Alexis Storer

Black Ops in The Shipment

Though I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise at the start of The Shipment, the debut production from Durham's Black Ops, it wasn't a case of déjà vu.

Instead, it signaled that playwright Young Jean Lee was picking up where an earlier playwright, director and astute social critic left off. One of the most haunting images in George C. Wolfe's sharp-toothed 1986 satire, The Colored Museum, comes at the end of "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," a decisive takedown of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and its 1973 musical adaptation.

At that point, the tortured protagonist has been killed by the police, but the cast resurrects him for a gospel-tinged, feel-good dance routine. As the number reaches a fever pitch, the characters are replaced by minstrels in tuxedos, top hats and blackface, winking, grinning and leering at the audience.

As The Shipment opens, actors Lazarus Simmons and JoRose are also garbed in formal wear, yet barefoot. Dutifully, both reenact the shuck and jive choreographed by director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Kristian King and Louisha Barnette. But as the work proceeds, the mask that poet Paul Laurence Dunbar once found essential to the everyday survival of African-Americans begins to slip.

The dancers' cheesy good-luck grins fade into a joyless rictus before falling away completely. Then the solemn performers interrupt their dance to closely scrutinize the audience. Resuming, they look at one another—and us—with exasperation and impatience, their movements segueing between grace, malfunction and slow electrocution. If they find comfort in one another's company, they take none in ours. The subtext in this recital of old racial signifiers is clear: "Why are we still doing this? And when do we get to stop?"

Indeed, those are the increasingly insistent questions in a mostly rewarding evening of provocative theater. At times they're posed directly from the stage.

"If you can't see the thin air what the hell is in your way?" Simmons, JoRose and Drina Dunlap ask, quoting the lyrics of Modest Mouse's "Dark Center of the Universe" in an uneasy a cappella sequence that separates the opening sections of The Shipment from the last act.

The question retroactively interrogates what came before. In the evening's most brilliant sketch, Lee assembles hackneyed racial stereotypes, oversimplified motives and well-worn plot devices from modern film and TV—and then instructs her actors to intone their lines as flatly as possible, fast-forwarding through the text.

The hilarious results suggest the living dead turned loose on a Law and Order script. Seconds after Jacqueline Markham's Mama intones that her son, Omar (Simmons), wants to be a rap star and not a doctor, she says, in a deadpan voice, "OK I understand. I'm proud of you for following your dreams." After Drina Dunlap's Sidekick Michael utters a passionless string of expletives, he's gunned down by stray machine-gun fire. "Oh no. A drive-by shooting," Omar (just barely) responds. As Holloway-Burrell faithfully directs her cast in this riff on a theater's technical "cue-to-cue" rehearsal, the humorous effects strip away all pretext and plausibility from a boneyard of hopeless clichés.

An unflappable stand-up comedian (Ron Lee McGill) grills his audience on its racial hang-ups, which may prove as challenging to some as his patter on the scatological and sexual obsessions of famous "blue" black comedians of the '50s and '60s, such as Redd Foxx. But McGill's overly polished (and, sometimes, too fast) delivery and a sketchy microphone dulled the sting of some of Lee's sharpest barbs.

The mostly young audience hung in, even with the most scabrous material, and laughed knowingly, even when being called out. Few plays blatantly invite their patrons to leave, but here, the comedian does, after adding the term "beasting" to his white audience's "repertoire of semi-ironic hop-hop lingo." No one took him up on the offer last Friday.

The biggest miscue of the evening came during the final section, a supposed tragicomedy that takes place at an after-work party. Veteran director Jaybird O'Berski has fun sending up socially inept characters, including McGill's manic-depressive Thomas, Dunlap's perpetually suspicious Desmond and JoRose's can't-win Michael. But the banality of the worst cocktail party ever drags before the riddle of the script is resolved at the end.

I wasn't sure what this company, or local audiences, would do with Lee's pointed script. Now I know: Both are more than ready for it. Depending on the math, there are between two and three generations of black playwrights whose works have never been seen on local stages. That's quite a backlog for a promising new black theater company to tackle. I very much look forward to seeing the next challenging work by Black Ops.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mission accomplished"

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