december 2017 | Volume 162
If In Yer Face theatre is your thing, The Cultch is the place to be this week.
Playing alongside The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Buffonius, Rumble Theatre’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that makes us laugh at rape and child murder and tries to make us think about why we’re laughing, SpeakEasy Theatre’s The Shipment has its Black actors call us motherfuckas and white racists and tries to make us think about why they’re doing that and why we’re laughing.
Written by Korean-American Young Jean Lee in collaboration with its original Black cast, and co-directed by Omari Newton, who also performs, and SpeakEasy’s artistic director Kayvon Khoshkam, this mysteriously titled play is divided into two parts. The first is like a minstrel show with stand-up, sketches, song and dance; the second half is a naturalistic comedy based on roles the actors said they always wanted to play.
The show opens with a ferocious stand-up routine by Newton, who calls himself “a Yaletown nigger born and bred,” giving the original monologue a Vancouver focus. He assaults us about our “racist bullshit,” pointing out accurately that “white people don’t like to hear Blacks complain,” though calling us “crackers” and asserting that “no one has ever been called a cracker before being lynched” seems a little culturally remote from the racism Canadians practice.
Newton is a terrific comic and his material is both funny and provocative. But in a couple of places it crosses over into sexual innuendo so gross and offensive that I had to wonder what it had to do with racism or Black identity, and especially in the current climate around male sexual privilege, how the company imagines such material could contribute to the show’s political agenda.
The rest of the first half is dominated by a sketch about media clichés: Chris Francisque, Adrian Neblett, Andrew Creightney, Kiomo Pyke and Newton play a variety of characters from wannabe rapper, drug dealer and crackhead to prison preacher, record company exec and video ho, with stylized movement and a song. It’s all nicely done but the point seems obvious and the material wouldn’t be out of place on Saturday Night Live. Francisque and Pyke are particularly effective.
The last section is the weakest. The five actors play the kinds of straight-up middle-class characters Black actors have rarely gotten to play, except maybe on The Cosby Show. But the playlet itself is utterly boring. That may be part of the point but it’s no fun to watch.
I wasn’t very impressed by The Shipment—but who cares if some cracker critic didn’t like it? What I did like very much is the fact that this relatively new company chose to do it. We can’t have enough conversations about race or racism, and anything theatrical that catalyzes those conversations can only be a good thing.
I’m also thrilled to see Black theatre of any kind with an all-Black cast on a Vancouver stage. I’m excited that Pacific Theatre will be producing Lynn Nottage’s Ruined in January, and The Cultch presenting Australia’s Hot Brown Honey. When will we see August Wilson done in Vancouver, or Djanet Sears?
If The Shipment is a sign that African American, African Canadian and African diasporic theatre of all kinds is becoming part of our regular theatrical repertoire, I say hooray.
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