Lots to unpack in Crowded Fire’s Shipment

The Shipment
William Hartfield (left) and Nican Robinson in Crowded Fire’s production of The Shipment by Young Jean Lee with gravity-defying choreography by Rami Margron. Below: The cast of The Shipment plays out a surprising living room drama. From left: William Hartfield, Nican Robinson, Howard Johnson Jr., Nkechi Emeruwa and Michael Wayne Turner III. Photos by Pak Han

While Secretary Clinton and The Orange Bloviator were duking it out at the first presidential debate and helping the populace decide the fate of this troubled nation, Crowded Fire Theater was painting its own portrait of America at the opening of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at the Thick House.

It was an incendiary evening for several reasons, not the least of which was the actual heat wave baking San Francisco. But Lee’s wild and wily play generated plenty of heat on its own with a Korean-American playwright taking a cast of black actors through a spectrum (or is it a prism?) of what being black can look like in this country.

The Shipment ventures into the realm of Suzan-Lori Parks and Caryl Churchill, whip-smart writers who stretch and often snap the boundaries of conventional theater. From its cryptic title through all of its 90 minutes, The Shipment confounds, delights, provokes and dazzles. Co-directed by Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins, this is contemporary theater at its most challenging and rewarding.

Somewhat ironically, the Thick House, a flexible play space, has been transformed by designer Deanna L. Zibello into a wholly traditional proscenium stage complete with red curtain. Within this world, the opening dance, rousingly choreographed by Rami Margron performed by William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, looks completely at home.

The Shipment

Exuberant and cartoonish and feeling like it’s part 1980s, part 1920s, the dance is an aperitif leading us into a stand-up comedy routine performed by Howard Johnson Jr. that essentially deconstructs our notion of what a black male comic is supposed to be all the while feeding us (occasionally) funny stand-up. But the longer the comic goes on, the more honest he becomes until he admits that his entire stage persona – from poop jokes, to button-pushing racial observations to infanticide to bestiality to incest – is a construct and bears no relation to the person he is offstage (except for maybe his affection for the scatological).

That unsettling monologue then leads into the evening’s strangest and most potent section in which we’re fed the kind of “gritty” black story we’ve experienced so much on TV and in film. A young man (Michael Wayne Turner III) dreams of becoming a rapper, gets tangled up in the drug world, ends up in prison, becomes a famous rapper anyway and falls down the fame hole. But in Lee’s version, the grit has been removed, and highly stylized stereotype takes its place. The result is at once bland and fascinating, a mirror held up to a mirror that reveals only the emptiness of familiarity devoid of actual human beings.

Some humanity returns in the form of a bizarre song sung in three-part a cappella harmony (by Turner, Robinson and Nkechi Emeruwa, music direction by Sean Fenton) that can’t help but be beautiful the longer it lingers and the more it repeats.

That little palate cleanser takes us into the evening’s only major set change, as a nicely appointed living room takes shape (is it notable that seemingly the only two caucasian people in the show are the guys moving the furniture?) and a party among friends commences. It’s quite clear from early on in this crisply performed mini-play that Lee is up to something more than just letting unlikeable people interact with one another over cocktails and cranky conversation. And sure enough, the scene takes some Albee turns and then whomps us with an exclamation point that emphasizes a simple fact: this is a Shipment carrying a whole lot of freight that may never be fully unpacked.

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment continues through Oct. 15 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 (ext. 1) or visit www.crowdefire.org.