Blacks Acting "White" is Hilarious, But What Would the Reverse Be?

…and other questions I had after seeing Young Jean Lee‘s The Shipment, a very compelling off off-Broadway play about Black identity in America by a Korean-American playwright, starring an all-black cast.

(image by Sara Krulwich, taken from the NYTimes).

Warning: if you’re in NY and you plan to see this, you may not want to read this yet!

I’d been really excited about seeing this play for a while and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Also made me think. A lot. And methinks this “review” may be all over the place because of those thoughts.

The play is divided into three sections, or acts. The first consists of a foul-mouthed Eddie Murphy-type stand-up comedian who says he’d love to spend all his time telling jokes about pooping (his very favorite subject of comedy) but is being forced to talk about race instead (because he’s black, because it unfortunately affects him as a black American). He remarks on some of the differences between whites and blacks: whites obsess about their weight throughout their lives, blacks — once they get married, forget about that shit. Occasionally, he’s confrontational but in a funny way, and, though I think he made many in the mostly white, mostly young, very liberal audience somewhat uncomfortable at points, everyone laughed. This was my least favorite section, mainly because I wish Lee would have been more specific at times and also because she overlooked class differences a bit. For example, the comedian says that whites love to accuse blacks of “whining,” but look at what whites whine about: “Ooh, I just don’t know what to dooo with my life!,” he says in falsetto, or “Ooh, am I too fat?!” It’s funny — because that’s exactly what a lot of whites do whine about — but upper-middle-class whites. Believe me, poor whites are not worried about how they look; they’re worried about putting food on the table, about how far they can stretch their next paycheck. Just visit any small working-class town in the south or the mid-west.

But also, I don’t really know what whites accuse blacks of whining about. Historical oppression? The disproportionate rates of incarceration? Racial targeting by the police? I’ve never heard any whites accuse blacks of whining about any of these things. Most whites don’t even want to think about those things.

Although …  now that I’m thinking of it, poor whites do tend to accuse blacks of whining about those things, at least more so than the upper-middle class yuppy whites who hystericize over their weight and what they’re going to be when they grow up. Ask a person in the latter group what they think of the current crime rate in NYC as opposed to the crime rate when Dinkins was mayor (early 90’s for non-NYers — when it was much higher). (They’ll all applaud how much safer and better NY is now.) Then ask them what they think of the fact that such a huge portion of those in prison are black thanks to that improved crime rate and they have nothing to say. They don’t want to talk about it anymore. They don’t want to talk about racial profiling, about the conditions that lead to crime.

The second and third parts of the play I liked much better. The second is a comedy about stereotypical prison inmates, focusing on one sweet, goodhearted guy who dreams of being a hip hop artist but ends up in jail after being talked into selling crack by a baddie in order to afford his train ticket to an important hip hop competition. Inside, he meets a producer who tells him he’s going to make him famous “just as soon as we both finish our 10-year sentences” (or whatever time they got; can’t remember the exact number of years but I think it was large). The singer raps some of his lines to the producer and the producer applauds him but tells him — this is meant to be funny — that he should be rapping about fighting whitey not other blacks folk. Rapper guy stops and thinks about it, a quizzical frown covering his face, seemingly unable to process it. His rap is reflection of the ghetto. But what if rap and hip hop were more like that? What if the lyrics were more confrontational and less turned in on their own communities? Would the (white) powers that be support them as much? Or would they be reduced to the realm of the “political” — the antithesis of “art”? Do whites kind of egg on those rap artists, like listening to those lyrics is a kind of sport, like cheering on boxers going at each other?

(photo by Sara Krulwich, of Amelia Workman and Okieriete Onodowan, from NYTimes)

The third act (pictured above) was my favorite. It’s this all-out mad crazy wildly hysterical Edward Albee-esque, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque total melodrama of people cat-fighting each other the way only upper middle-class whites with empty inner lives can do. Of course it’s made all the more hilarious by the fact that the cast is all black. But then, once you get into it, a funny thing happens: you forget they’re all black and they begin to become these pathetic white backroom coke addicted, Ivy-League-educated, anal, self-obsessed, whining, ridiculously overpaid corporate lawyers whose only way to stave off depression over their empty lives is to throw barb after barb at each other. In a nutshell, the main character, feeling sorry for himself, throws himself a birthday party, invites friends and colleagues only to reveal publicly each’s weakness, accuse them of not caring about him, serve a lovely birthday cake over which he sings happy birthday to himself then eats by himself — with his hands, and eventually seriously scares them into believing he hates them so he’s poisoned their drinks (they should be keeling over dead in about an hour, he tells them). You can’t imagine it can get any worse, and yes someone calls 911 (very white, especially given that they’ve been doing coke in the apartment), but then, they all eventually come together again — over racist jokes. Lovely.

It’s not until the end — the racist joke part — where you realize they are actually meant to be white. At first I thought they were, then began to wonder if they weren’t just “blacks acting white” (whatever that is exactly) but then realized I was originally correct, in the end. Some audience members didn’t get it though. Someone called out, “Whaaaaat?”  at the last line.

So, it ends up being funny to see blacks in a “white situation.” And of course very disturbing that the way they come together again is through a shared felt-but-not-spoken racism.

But I was thinking, what about the reverse? What if a group of white actors were put in a “black situation”? What if there was a scene where all of these whites converge in the lobby of their upper east-side apartment building one evening, after walking their dogs, just standing around chatting, commending the cuteness of each other’s pets, maybe some return from running a Road Runners race — everyone all ooohing and aahing over such physical ambition. Suddenly police storm in. Everyone automatically freezes, maybe some Road Runners flee. One set of police chases after those who run. The other searches everyone caught in the lobby. One dog-owner is arrested, for loitering. How funny would that be?

Anyway, now that I totally went all over the place with this, here is NYTimes guy (Charles Ishwerwood), who wrote a proper review of Ms. Lee’s play! The Shipment shows at the Kitchen in west Chelsea Wednesday through Saturday through the end of the month. I highly recommend it. Go here for deets.

The whole cast, by the way, is excellent. I especially liked Amelia Workman in the last act. She just oozed white, privileged whiny Ivy-bitch who gigglingly gets off on telling a racist joke, just like something out of Bret Easton Ellis.

6 Comments

  1. Fascinating review, Tonya! I hadn't heard about this play (try as I do to “keep up” via nytimes.com, gawker etc) but it sounds really good.

  2. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thank you, Rebekkah!

  3. I think that people are far too worried about offending people or doing something that is not expected in the theater these days. This is a much welcomed change! Offend people! Make them think! Make them paranoid! Shake their foundations! This is what theater was meant to be.
    inchirieri masini

  4. I think that people are far too worried about offending people or doing something that is not expected in the theater these days. This is a much welcomed change! Offend people! Make them think! Make them paranoid! Shake their foundations! This is what theater was meant to be.
    inchirieri masini

  5. Nice post. I saw this play a few days ago in Pittsburgh and loved it.

    For the record, in the 3rd act they never say they're white. They say “not black”, but many people see race as a dichotomy such that there's only one implication. There are a lot more racial categories and forms of racism in the US and the world…

  6. I think this is great and I wish I had the money to see it! I feel like it’s okay for someone who is black to act white, but when a white person tries to act black, they are instantly called a racist. Just a thought, and I don’t agree with that. Hopefully one day it changes.

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