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. This should be the final post to your blog, posted by May 14th at 5pm. 1000 words MAXIMUM. If you do a good job you will get a B. If you do an excellent job you will receive an A on this assignment. Those are the only two grades (unless you don’t turn in the assignment or turn it in late).
Young Jean Lee’s The Shipmentis a performance whose diverse and contrasting acts by five black actors leave the shocked audience unearthing and examining the fragments of their sedimented racial biases they forgot even existed. She perpetually creates a foundation for race to live on, only to pull the rug out from under it in the next instant. Lee interrogates the culturally policed notion that the performativity of race on stage (and thus in life) is restricted by the materiality of certain bodies through the dialectical contrast of minstrel shows and naturalistic scenes, intertwined with Brechtian breaks, that force the audience to critically examine how race is construed and their biases to it.
While The Shipmentunderscores that race, like gender, requires continuous ‘everyday’ performance to be understood and reaffirmed as such, it takes it a step further by criticizing that the performativity of race is itself historically raced, thereby regulating what bodies are freed by their body’s history and materiality on stage. Through the punchline at the very end of the performance “I just don’t think we’d be doing this if there was a black person in the room.”, Lee seeks to dismantle our preconception that race is predominantly defined by the tone of our skin – a parallel to experience’s like Narcissister’s who are often considered white-passing. Simultaneously, it uncovers the culturally established bias that only some bodies can be on stage without their history or materiality impacting how they inhabit a particular character on stage. More simply stated, a coloured body on stage has been historically given a very limited window of performativity to roam in. African-American bodies have been culturally policed into taking on roles in minstrel shows, vaudeville, and stand-up comedy for the entertainment of the white audience. The continuous performance of those acts inextricably linked their blackness and the type of performativity they have been restricted to and projected them onto the materiality of their body. Society’s conception of blackness became perpetually asserted as true through the normative and regulatory ideals of society through which a material body is raced. Lee exposes this bias by having black bodies act the most opposing role to their ‘identity’ as possible: white upperclass. In essence, the color of one’s skin and the associated mannerisms of the performance style came to create the phenomenological definition of binary race through their continuous performativity, thereby preventing the audience from being able to see a black body on stage as anything but the ‘historical idea’ it became indexical for.
Lee calls this assumption into question through the implication of naturalistic forms of acting, which seek to dismantle the ‘historical idea’ of race created through polemical stand-up comedy and hyperbolic sketches that are mimetic of minstrel shows. The Shipment begins with highly satirical stand-up comedy, which constructs “white” stereotypes around race by relying on the historic performative memory of common race-focused interactions. It relies on the white demography in Seattle, Washington to create this ‘Performance’ in Richard Schechner’s sense, without whom the desired effect of shock and questioning is not achieved, as Peter Chelkowski also pinpointed with the Ta’ziyeh. This social construct of race and blackness is further expounded through ‘The Rapper Omar’ sketch that depicts hyperbolized racial tropes through a white artistic sense by using Aristotelian mimesis. In the same way that Judith Butler argued “gender is instituted through the stylization of the body” (Butler, pg.1), Lee helped construct the phenomenon of race by continuously performing acts that played into earlier established tropes. However, Lee takes it one step further by realising that performativity is also the key to dismantling such tropes, placing black bodies into roles not designated by society in dialectical opposition to the first half of the performance. Lee clearly understands N’gugi Wa Thiong’o’s argument that “The performance space […] is always the site of physical, social, and psychic forces in society.” (Wa Thiong’o, pg. 13 ), by exploiting how the space inhabited by naturalistic plays clashes with the ‘historical idea’ of blackness. Realism and naturalism have both been forms of acting attached to the white bourgeois. By having black actors inhabit white roles in white spaces, Lee not only calls into question the restrictions placed on black material bodies, but more generally what race is, and how being black or white is constructed through everyday performativity in ways beyond one’s skin tone.
Nevertheless, the success of this hinged upon Brechtian techniques for the audience to become acutely aware of the dissonance between the actors on stage and the roles they were inhabiting. By having the same set of actors play in the first and second half, while also maintaining the same names in the case of Omar and Desmond, attention was called to the different roles the same body was performing and inhabiting. This led to a certain Verfremdungseffekt by intimating the disjoint between the bodies and characters on stage, causing viewers to become more preoccupied than usual with the performance structure, a fact assisted by the elongated, lit set construction.
Additionally, the use of elements of Clifford Geertz’s deep-play during the stand-up comedy helps transition the audience into an active participant. The initiated laughs get caught in ones throat like a fish hook only a moment later, with for example “now it’s time to go after some black people … now a lot of white folks in the audience just came.” (min 12:29). The audience for a while becomes co-performers in the high stakes environment of the stand-up comedy, as their audible responses to his comments become indicators of their political and racial convictions, and in a way ‘outs’ them. As a result, it causes the audience to engage with the issues presented later much more deeply as an element of stake was introduced. In essence, Lee continuously calls our attention to the workings of the play in an attempt to decouple the actor and the role they inhabit, the realisation of which causes the audience to grapple with a new understanding of how race is constructed and examine their own biases.
Aristotle. The Poetics. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html
Bertolt Brecht: 169-184 in : Krasner, David (ed.) Theater in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology.
Butler, Judith.“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,”
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.”
Lee, Young Jean. THE SHIPMENT | OntheBoards.Tv. Accessed May 14, 2019. https://www-ontheboards-tv.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/performance/theater/the-shipment?ip_login_no_cache=6f1ad18957ba9c680f090e8c85bdea7b.
Schechner, Richard: “Drama, Script, Theater, Performance.”
Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR (1988-)41, no. 3 (1997): 11–30. https://doi.org/10.2307/1146606.
“Theater of Protest” 178 – 192 in in Chelkowski, Peter J. (ed.). Eternal Performance: Taziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals.