Week 15: Final Essay

Judith Butler writes, “gender is a stylized repetition of acts .. which are internally discontinuous … so that the appearance of substance is precisely that — a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief.”

What does this production of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment tell us about the performativity of  gender and of race?  How does The Shipment implicate genres of theatre and forms of acting in the creation or destruction of those social constructs?  Please use specific examples from the video you have been shown and ideas from the artists’ work we have viewed throughout the semester and the theorists we have read.

The Shipment breaks down the social ideas of gender and race to their most basic performative aspects in order to challenge the audience’s perception of embodied race and gender, and to reconstruct those performative acts in an unexpected way. The opening vignettes (the opening dance, stand-up comedy set, disconnected, pantomime-like scene, and a cappella song) all serve to highlight historically embodied techniques of black bodies in performance, until these techniques are evacuated in the final scene. Lee then uses this method of dissecting racially significant performatives and then removing them in a Brechtian manner to implicate the audience in systems of racial profiling and prejudice.

The Shipment opens with a short segment where two actors perform a dance drawing from modern hip-hop dancing, vaudeville performances, and minstrelsy. This immediately sets the tone for the night—while the audience first derives joy from the actors’ virtuosic and energetic bodies, the threads of embodied racial performance soon come to light. When the second performer enters, he shakes himself loosely until the first actor throws a stage punch at his face. The two actors dance and react to the punch, all while keeping jovial expressions on their faces. Here, we see the first three embodied racial performatives appear in The Shipment: a dancing black body, a loose body present in the movements, and a smiling, ever-happy face. While the latter two aspects are not restricted to black performers, the origin of these images (especially on black bodies) is derived from the minstrel performances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where blackness was presented as a joke for white audiences. The reference and implication to minstrelsy steadily grows throughout the dance portion, allowing itself to sneak into the audience’s mind until it literally jumps out at the audience at the end of the dance. This is a subtle symbolic gesture preparing the audience for their eventual implication.

The next segment presented in The Shipment is a stand-up comedy set from a black man. Here, Lee’s target shifts from evoking historical racial stereotypes to exposing more current ones. The stand-up comedian, in his vocal delivery and set content, embodies many common images of black comedy in the late 20th and 21st centuries. The comedian uses a high-volume, accusatory tone, and his speech is peppered with African-American Vernacular English. The content of the set dances back and forth between honest critiques of race in comedy and shocking discussions of bestiality, incest, and excrement. Here, two more stereotypes are on display: the use of AAVE and the image of the uncouth and loud black man. Playing on the audience’s memory of stand-up comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, the comedian in The Shipment allows the audience to be complacent in his stereotypical depictions of black male comedians, so that all of his astute points about race and comedy go over their heads as they are distracted by the language and its delivery.

At this point in The Shipment, Lee has used traditional modes of black performance (in minstrelsy-style dancing and stand-up comedy) to expose embodied performative methods of race. In the next two segments, the ironic pantomime and the a cappella song, Lee begins experimenting with removing these embodied performatives. The pantomime (which I am calling a pantomime because of its bare, stylized movements and sparse language, but is truly more of a skit) tells the story of a young black teen who drops out of school to become a rapper, but then gets caught up in selling drugs—only to leverage his newfound infamy into a superstardom he soon grows bored with. The story is stereotypically black, as it plays into the “gangster” image associated with young, urban black men. But without the racially-coded performance aspects, the audience is confused and unsure how to feel. Is this skit a cautionary tale for black youth? Or is it a mocking retelling of a story they’ve heard thousands of times? Without the performatives, it feels much more like the latter. This confusion continues into the short song segment, where two actors and an actress sing an a cappella rendition of Modest Mouse’s “Dark Center of the Universe.” They sing while facing front, showing very little in the way of expression. This is a stark contrast to the opening dance segment, where the actors’ happy faces and energetic bodies allowed the audience to be complicit in the racial stereotypes on display. Here, in the song, Lee begins to “whiten” the performers by having them perform a song by a white band in a style that de-emphasizes their blackness.

The final scene, in which all five black actors are at a dinner party secretly playing white characters, fully experiments with removing black-coded embodied performatives from black actors. However, since the audience had just sat through 45 minutes of a show dealing in exposing and dismantling black stereotypes, the memories of those performatives (especially on these specific actors) is still there in the audience’s mind and to many, the actors still “read” as black. It is not until the final reveal—that the characters were white all along—that the audience is truly implicated in the system of racial stereotyping that’s been on display throughout the entire show. The audience has been allowed to point out the individual stereotypes as they’ve seen them so far, but here, as they realize they’ve read white characters as black due entirely to their own personal prejudices, that the implication and call to action is complete. The Shipment works by slowly drawing out embodied racialized performatives, then evacuating them completely, and then pointing out that the evacuation still does not allow the audience to be truly colorblind. Instead, the audience is left wondering what it was about the final scene that made them think the characters were black, and how that informs their understanding of how race is performed or not performed outside of the theater.

One thought on “Week 15: Final Essay

  1. Dear Allie,
    What beautiful writing and thoughtful analysis! First of all, I appreciate how much attention you paid to the initial dance sequence. So many very good observers forget about that – either dismissing it as a prologue to the piece or assuming that dance cannot begin a “play.” Instead you read it carefully for the forms it references – minstrelsy, plantation performance which required slaves to demonstrate their compliance with the terms of chattel slavery through smiling, flexible dance. Of course this becomes more complicated, as Thomas DeFranz writes as forms of black cultural dance are developed in street performances and become commoditized — like its historical precedents, it has a double consciousness as communicating something to others interpellated by race that operates out of a commodity culture and becoming a commodity to be consumed by the white community. Performativity, as you point out, fuses forms of performance and the bodies that perform through those forms to abstract concepts of race and gender. And as long as we don’t recognize the history of those forms (and the analogy can be made to Wa Thiong’o and how we also have to recognize the history of the performance space) repeating them in the way they have been historically fashioned keeps the same notions of race and gender in play. You are astute to point out how Brecht is useful to Lee to show this idea. And how she still needs his ideas to begin to evacuate the power they still have over us all. Gorgeous reply and you did an incredible job this semester. Congratulations!


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