It is the rare meditation on race in America that includes a parable about an exploding wading bird. But you get a crane-combustion fable in “The Shipment,” the bracingly provocative and funny play about African American identity by the avant-gardist Young Jean Lee.
Now on view in a Forum Theatre production cannily staged by Psalmayene 24, “The Shipment” aims to make us think hard about stereotypes and the conscious and unconscious assumptions we make regarding race. To this end, the play’s many skitlike sections work to knock us out of our comfort zones — when necessary, with a dose of complacency-shattering weirdness.
So it is that during one set piece, a gangster rapper (Gary L. Perkins III) has a fleeting vision of Grandma From Heaven (Shannon Dorsey), who reels off a truly bizarre allegory about a greedy crane that explodes, generating a world of maimed creatures and red-berry soil.
That is just one of the ingeniously disorienting moments in this work by Lee, known for her daring takes on such sensitive topics as race and ethnicity.
(Locally, Forum staged her play “Church” in 2012; Studio Theatre mounted “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” in 2010.) First performed in 2008, “The Shipment” has a shiver-inducing relevance today, in the wake of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. The subject matter’s sobering timeliness hasn’t crimped the style of Psalmayene 24 and his fine cast, who succeed in making the play hugely entertaining, as well as unsettling. After all, turning third-rail topics into shocking divertissements is part of Lee’s bold project.
Psalmayene 24 (“Hip-Hop Children’s Trilogy”) has particularly succeeded at finding apt variety-entertainment touches for “The Shipment,” which, as dramaturge Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe observes in the playbill, bears some structural resemblance to the historical minstrel show genre. In the opening moments of this production, the five actors fling themselves into an energetic dance whose steps, infused with hip-hop, occasionally cede to poses that allude to self-presentation and public image. One performer mimes taking a selfie, for instance. At the back of the stage, a blurry projection of an urban port seems to refer to the slave trade. (Tony Thomas II is the show’s choreographer; Forum’s producing artistic director, Michael Dove, is the scenic designer.)
The dance is followed by a scabrous tirade delivered by a stand-up comic (the hugely watchable Darius McCall), who casually flanks outrageous jokes about race with similarly outrageous jokes about sexual taboos (including incest and bestiality) and bodily functions. The comic gleefully skewers liberal pieties, blame-the-victim attitudes and other types of self-interested thinking. (“You can add it to your repertoire of semi-ironic hip-hop lingo,” he says sardonically as he defines the term “beastin’. ” The effect of the profane rant is to demolish any sense of security you might have about your own multicultural mind-set.
The play’s next section, the skit that includes Grandma From Heaven, nervily spoofs the mythology of inner-city dysfunction, following an underprivileged youth from childhood, to prison, to rapper stardom, to despair. Drawing attention to the kind of oversimplification that can figure in public narratives about such matters, the actors here use deliberately stylized, rigid movements, evoking an elementary-school play crossed with a Victorian melodrama.
“The Shipment” shifts gears again in its final segment, a relatively naturalistic vignette about middle-class professionals who find themselves in the midst of a cocktail party from hell. Among other deft performances, Dexter Hamlett is droll as a guest with secrets to keep, and Mark Hairston is hilarious as a self-righteous vegetarian.
The skit veers from the comedy of awkwardness into something much weirder. Only in its final lines does it become clear how the party relates to the play’s central theme. It is a big-reveal moment that may send you figuratively reeling, as you realize how many of your own assumptions you have let go unquestioned.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Psalmayene 24; lighting design, Allan Sean Weeks; costumes, Katie Touart; sound, Thomas Sowers; properties, Kevin Laughon; assistant director, Amanda Herman. 90 minutes. Through June 13 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets, $30-$35. Call 301-588-8279 or go to