The Shipment

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 28, 2016

The Shipment

It's awkward, but we have to provide a disclaimer right up front that we're white. You can't tell by reading it (can you?), but white people wrote this review, and that may or may not be important. So now you know.

Crowded Fire Theatre's "The Shipment," taught us a lesson. That lesson is to be careful about calling anything the weirdest show of the year, because in a few weeks something stranger may come along.

It's difficult to communicate what "The Shipment" is about. Well, thematically, it's about stereotypes. Playwright Young Jean Lee spent quite a bit of time quizzing the cast about racist pigeonholing and its effect on the lives of black Americans. That much you can't miss.

But explaining anything more gets tricky. "The Shipment" is intentionally alienating and unfriendly. For example, it opens with Howard Johnson Jr. (of last year's "Xtigone") launching an intentionally confrontational, unpleasant, never-quite-funny-although-that's-not-the-point comedy routine, which acclimates the audience.

(As in every other part of the show, Johnson is already playing a stereotype, in this case the raunchy black comedian.)

Things get more outre from there. Really, we shouldn't even try to explain. Probably best just to give it up and retire now. We had a good run, thanks for all the support, "luckiest man in the world" speech, etc. We've all got to go sometime, right?

All right, a story certainly unfolds, and we can even tell you what it's about: A young kid down on his luck turns to crime, loses his friend to violence, goes to prison, finds religion, becomes a rap star, loses his way again, etc.

But it's the style rather than the events of the story (all well-worn clichés about black characters) that you notice. The cast act intentionally awkward and stilted the entire time. The dialogue consists mostly of declarative statements about what they're doing. They tend to stare an awful lot.

There is, in fact, a stare down that lasts for several minutes. No dialogue, no music, just a long, hard stare into the audience that feels like it goes on forever. It's as though you're in a nightmare sequence of a David Lynch movie, but you're not sure you're sure he's ever going to yell "cut."

Of course, it would be dismissive to just call "The Shipment" strange. The stilted, listless, uncomfortable style of Lee's script and the co-directors Lisa Marie Rollins and Mina Morita's atmosphere suggest the malaise of playing worn-out tropes. The bid to spoil the audience's sense of ease communicates how uncomfortable we should already be with things we may take for granted in some shows.

And suddenly the show changes again, this time into a comparably nondescript (if deeply amusing) story about the world's most terrifyingly uncomfortable party.

Birthday boy Johnson may or may not be losing his mind; Nican Robinson has a bravara evening as a partygoer of utterly unmovable, mechanical sensibilities; Nkechi Emeruwa (of Theatre Rhino's "The Call"), the only woman in the room, fends of frequent encroachment on her personal space, etc.

It's not immediately clear what this has to do with the central theme, but all reveals itself in time.

A show like "The Shipment" almost defies critique. That it's good is almost beside the point. That it distills a hoard of experiences, frustrations, disappointments and normally unspoken critical observations into 90 minutes is self-evident. That it makes you squirm means it works.

You can probably suss out for yourself whether this is a program you have the temperament for. Of course, there's a case to be made that those without really ought to see it anyway, but nobody's forcing you. It's a free country. On paper.

"The Shipment" plays through Oct. 15 at the Thick House, 1695 18th Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 415-746-9238 or go to