Something Lost in Transit
By Henning Bochert
Translated from German by Goesta Struve-Dencher
By Young Jean Lee
As part of a European tour following its
extraordinarily successful run in New York earlier this year,
Young Jean Lee's play The Shipment was recently presented
by the HAU Theater in Berlin. The production, directed by the
author and performed at the Hebbel Theater, had just come from
engagements in Paris, and it would subsequently play in Hamburg.
For my part, I was seriously impressed
by the exacting composition and the profound dramaturgy of this
work, as well as by the marvelous acting in it. At the same time,
it struck me that, despite its obvious ambitiousness and depth,
the production did not read well for a German audience, largely
because of the way its provocations were specifically designed
for a U.S. audience.
The Shipment subverts American
perceptual habits. We witness an evening in four parts: an introductory
dance; a solo entertainer performing a massive monologue; a sort
of comic-strip biographical sketch in high-speed time-lapse; and
finally a short social drama with a twist. After the New York
opening, a reviewer for The New York Times wrote: "The
show is provocative but never polemical, and it is pleasingly
eclectic." Here I would like to offer my response as a German
spectator who necessarily has different reactions to both the
provocations and the pleasures.
While I did not feel significantly affected
emotionally after the show, the evening appears more complex as
I think about it more closely. I also perceived a fundamental
question -- and a fundamental problem -- in exporting this work
to non-American countries. The performance aims at undermining
the audience's deeply ingrained prejudicial modes of seeing. Each
of the four parts addresses discriminatory perceptions, of which
no one can be free, and it is the necessary labor of a meaningful
Sisyphus to point them out time and again. The problem with performing
such a labor beyond the borders of one's culture is that perceptions
of discriminatory perceptions are necessarily very different there.
expecting a dialogue-based play focusing on racism is unsettled
right off the bat in The Shipment by the virtuosic opening
dance. The choreography quotes elements of the minstrel-show,
a specifically American form of entertainment that began in the
19th century and remained popular until the final abolition of
the Jim Crow laws in 1964: white entertainers painted their faces
black and danced a caricature of black people and their alleged
ridiculous characteristics. Not even the music in these shows
was really of African-American origin. Yet paradoxically, black
actors eventually participated in them. The exploitative minstrel
shows provided a loophole in the performing restrictions for black
entertainers, and audiences would often not even notice that the
skin under the black paint was actually dark. It is hard to imagine
how humiliating this occupation would have been.
We can assume that a U.S. audience would
be as sensitive to quotations from the minstrel form, even though
it is old history, as a German audience would be to the tone of
anti-Jewish forms of entertainment. Most German audience members
do not know much about minstrelsy, however, and without this essential
information, all they may see is a beautiful dance.
The next part of The Shipment
is one big transgression of racial taboos: the actor Douglas Scott
Streater inundates us with black-and-white jokes in stand-up comedy
format. He speaks of babies slaughtered, incest propagated, and
runs the gamut of scatological language from anal sex to sex with
animals. He admits that he would not talk like this offstage but
he's too afraid of his peers' reactions to abandon his role. During
his first sentences, the actor addresses his audience regarding
the ethnic minorities at the respective site of the performance.
Every place has its own blacks, he opines: it's just that in Berlin
they'd be called Turks.
both jokes and taboos are culturally very delicately positioned
and not easily transposed by just briefly calling upon the most
visible ethnic minority at the respective city of performance
in this way: Tamils in Zürich, Turks in Berlin, Arabs in Paris.
The issues involved are too specific in each case, and if Tamils
in Switzerland are differently positioned in society than Turks
in Berlin, then there is certainly a significant difference between
both those groups and African-Americans in the United States.
The Turks in Berlin, for example, are first, second or already
third generation immigrants from the post-war economic boom (Wirtschaftswunder)
of the 1960s, when Germany was in urgent need of workers for its
flourishing industry. During that time, Greeks and Italians were
invited to work in Germany as well, as Gastarbeiter,
or guest workers. A comparison with African-Americans in the U.S.,
whose ancestors were forcibly relocated as cargo, glosses over
the atrocities of the slave trade and the racial divide embedded
in that country since then. Perhaps this point could be clarified
by reflecting on how specious it would be to equate the particular
social issues facing African-Americans with those of contemporary
Mexican immigrant workers in the U.S.
Young Jean Lee no doubt felt she was directing
her local audiences' attention towards their own racial prejudices
and patterns of thinking. My feeling, however, is that for the
purpose of a differentiated view, the show's specificity is just
what should not be sacrificed. The production is calibrated to
a U.S. audience with the most extreme exactitude. Running the
risk of getting caught in the first net laid out by the dramaturgy,
I consider the decision to superimpose local problems at the tour's
performance sites imprecise.
Part three of The Shipment is
Omar's story, an extremely amusing narrative cliché of an underprivileged
African-American's life. We learn of Omar's dream of becoming
a rap star, his drug career, his jail time. A few friends die,
and in the end he regrets his ugly life. The acting here is an
impressive translation of the South Park style to the
stage. Obviously the audience gets caught up in this surprising
treatment. But the matter unfortunately isn't left there. A very
long, patronizing silence follows the scene, of the kind one employs
with children, waiting out their tantrums with a patient, meaningful
look. After the show, an actress told me that this was exactly
the way it was meant. It was supposed to make us feel uncomfortable,
and that expectation felt awkward. Eventually, marvelously, the
a cappella trio in the scene broke the silence with a song by
Modest Mouse. The precision of that cut like a knife.
By this point in the play, the audience
was clearly tuned to the theme at hand. As a Caucasian, I would
have been too uptight by now to talk to any Turk, Iranian, Tamil,
Algerian, Senegalese or African-American about what I was seeing.
Then came the longest, fourth part of the show, the main attraction:
a birthday party at Thomas's. This section involves a mini-play
about a host who is acting strangely, pitting his guests against
each other. "I have poisoned us all," he claims, after which everybody
becomes frantic and an ambulance is called. Later it all turns
out to be a bad joke. Thomas is so lonely that he brutally dupes
his friends and, along with them, us.
friends play a game to relax, a few not-so-funny jokes are made
about African-Americans, everyday racism. Omar is not comfortable
with that. "I really don't think we would be doing this if there
were a black person in the room," he says. "I guess that would
depend on what kind of black person it was," quips Desmond. Bang,
lights out. The End.
Now the audience ought to do a double take
and realize, oh wow, those were all white characters being played
by the black cast. I suspect that most of the Berlin audience,
however, missed this twist either for acoustic reasons or because
they were busily scanning back and forth between actors and supertitles.
The question remains whether the U.S. audience would have caught
on before the final revelation. In any case, because the black-white
theme is less prevalent in German society, we tend to perceive
(or would like to think we do) social class before skin color
in such a setting, so we may not have the prerequisites to decipher
these racial behavioral stereotypes at all. What we see are well-situated,
very well-dressed people, who act and speak much like the characters
in the TV serials imported from the USA.
This play is a racism mouse-trap, minutely
and magnificently constructed, and it should be no surprise that
it ensnares differently in different places. It was certainly
less effective with a European audience, and under the conditions
of a foreign-language guest performance, than it no doubt was
in Columbus, Ohio, or New York City. I was looking forward to
asking about its various subtleties, and about the cultural differences
just described, during a post-show talk with the cast and Ms.
Lee at the Hebbel. Unfortunately, such a talk was not scheduled.
Which was too bad, because this production urgently required mediation
under the circumstances in Berlin. The translation alone was unable
to convey both the fine web of its thematic fabric and the powerful
impact of its delivery.
Photos copyright: A.J. Zanyk and Paula