September 5th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Jonanna Widner News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TBA Diary: The Shipment, Race, and Modest Mouse

Tags: Stage, TBA, Race

In the past couple weeks, ever since the intensity surrounding TBA:09 has been ratcheting up, I've been hearing the name Young Jean Lee. Seems like Lee's theater piece The Shipment has been on the tip of every tongue, as one of the premiere works in a festival full of them.

Did it live up to the hype?

Yep, it did. The Shipment is a strange, abrasive, gut-check--a frank examination of racism that will leave most folks writhing in their seats but also laughing at the same time. The thing about this piece—although it's a staged work with three parts (acts?), it can't fully be called a play—is that it pecks and pokes and digs at so many aspects of American racism from so many different angles, yet it is rarely superficial. Unless it is intentionally superficial. Which of course leads to deeper waters.

Let me take just a single snapshot of the entire 1 ½-hour work to illustrate my point.

The end of the second act closes with three African-American actors at the lip of the stage, facing the audience with direct gazes and little affectation, singing a song. The performers sing beautifully, albeit intensely, in a capella three-part harmony. The melody is odd but it grips you; the harmonies swirl and bend around each other. It is a gorgeous moment. But everything sounds a little…off. And that's when you realize, Holy crap, this is a Modest Mouse song.

It's a moment of cultural dissonance: Everything sounds off because, in all honesty, it sounds weird to hear black people singing Modest Mouse songs. That sounds terrible, I know. And you know what—it is terrible. Because at that particular moment, when I realized what was happening with this song and that it sounded so strange to my ears, I realized that for all my white, left-wing, Obama-voting liberalism, I still assume certain things to be mine as a white person. Things like indie rock.

It was a shock to feel that. But that's the whole point of The Shipment—to utilize different ways of shattering our deeply embedded, self-congratulatory illusions that we are one of the “good ones.” That the entire work is so smart, and funny, and spine-tingling makes the message all the more intense, and all the more reason to make it a must-see.

Young Jean Lee's The Shipment at Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 224-7422. 8:30 pm Sunday, Sept. 6. $15-$20.
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