The Shipment forces us to confront our biases and think about race

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The Shipment | SpeakEasy Theatre | Firehall Arts Centre | September 24 – October 5, 2019

So you think you know a lot about race? Well, this play may make you think again. The Shipment is a provocatively challenges notions of race, identity, privilege, and power in a way that only fully hits you once you leave the theatre.

Young Jean Lee’s subversive play takes stereotypes about black identity and turns them upside down. In the first section, Omari Newton’s stand-up comedy is a blunt, honest, and at times scathing commentary about white privilege, reverse racism, colour-blindness, and how to not walk on eggshells while still being culturally sensitive.

He finished his set by telling us to “stay afraid” and continue walking on eggshells; in other words, stay aware of your words and actions, listen, and be accountable and honest. Newton won a Jessie Award for his performance in the original run, and it’s easy to see why. He builds trust with the audience while at the same time giving them some tough love and causing them to squirm in their seats; in the end there are plenty of laughs and he wins us over.

Newton is joined by Andrew Creightney, Chris Francisque, Adrian Neblett, and Kiomi Pyke as the five of them embody stereotypical black characters from pop culture including Video Ho, Crackhead John, Bad Cop, Stand-up Comedian, Drug Dealer Mama, Grandma from Heaven, and Record Company Executive. Their matter-of-fact, bored delivery of their lines signaled the predictability and ubiquity of these characters — they were poking fun while providing a social commentary that forced the audience to think about both media bias and our own notions of black identity. The ensemble finished this section with a beautiful harmony.

In the final section, the tables are turned as they switch to embodying white stereotypes at a dinner party. The change was obvious in their words and action, prompting us to think about why certain modes of speech, topics, or demeanours are perceived as “white” or “black.” The dinner party gets weird very quickly, with one character claiming he’s poisoned the others. They end up playing “Library” — a game in which you pull a book off the shelf, randomly choose a page, and say the first part of a sentence for the other players to complete. It’s only when a sentence that begins “The negro believes…” is the prompt that they deliver the final line that confirms the notion that they are enacting white stereotypes. It’s a piercing line that is all the more potent as they turn to look directly at the audience, compelling us to confront our bias and think about how we perceive race, how stereotypes are formed and how we might work towards breaking them down.

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