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Tuesday, March 5

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Theatre Thu Mar 11 2010

The Shipment

For some, the historic election of President Barack Obama signaled an end--or at least, somewhat--to the issue of racial inequality in America. Despite this age of Obama, racial stereotypes about African-Americans still persist; in The Shipment, which comes to Chicago later this month, director/playwright Young Jean Lee explains why discussions about race shouldn't end and why they must continue.

YOUNG JEAN LEE

Photo courtesy of Blaine Davis

In your mission, you note that you produce theater "that unsettles and challenges"--tell us more about this.
I don't like art where you see something and it reaffirms all your pre-existing beliefs [about things]. I prefer art that shakes me up a little bit, makes me questions myself and makes me think about things.

In your play The Shipment, the subject of race & stereotypes, mostly aimed at African-Americans, is thoroughly explored; however, many ethnic groups are stereotyped--what was it about African-Americans specifically that you wanted to tap into?
I started the show pre-Obama. During that time, people were nice when I talked about race. I also did an Asian-American show and people were still comfortable, but when racism against black people came up, they got defensive and weird.

Why do you think that was?
There is a huge difference in racism against immigrants [as opposed to] kidnapping people from their country to be used as slaves. This is a dark thing in America's history. There is deep shame and defensiveness about it, basically with white America. This defensiveness doesn't happen nearly as much with Asians or other immigrants, and that's why I wanted to start exploring it.

Well the idea is that now since the U.S. has elected its first African-American president, as a nation, we've "overcome," so to speak.
I think that's so ridiculous--so preposterous. This one extraordinary individual--I mean, it is a sign of progress, but the fact that this one extraordinary individual managed to accomplish an amazing thing has nothing to do with things. The after-effects are still all there. For people to really believe that the reason why black men are in prison and in ghettos is because they are not taking initiative for themselves the way Obama did is ridiculous.

It seems that race is really society's topic du jour right now.
I don't know. It definitely was when Obama was running--everybody was talking about it. It has died down now, though.

Well did the discussion of race heighten since his election or have we just become more hypersensitive about it?
I am so all for hypersensitivity. People talk all the time about political correctness--that it oppresses white people and it's taking over the world. That's a lie. If anything, Obama opened up the race dialogue.

As a nation, we are still uncomfortable discussing race--why?
I don't complain about racism--about being Asian. You can't do that as a person of color; instead, you have to be sneaky about it. My work is weird as it is, so that's where and how I sneak it in.

Do the media sensationalize race/racism too much?
Well, the more attention that gets drawn to it, the better. People should be defensive. It's also a tricky thing because people just want us to act as if everybody's equal--that if race is emphasized, it will further divide us. But I don't think the media creates it; it's not a skin color issue--it's a socioeconomic issue. The real problem is not what a "John Mayer" says in a magazine interview; it's the social economic inequality based on racism.

Let's talk more about The Shipment. How did you come up with that title?
My titles tend to be kind of an aesthetic choice--I just go with what feels right. The Coup, a communist rap group from the Bay Area, has a song called "The Shipment." For them, it means a shipment of drugs; for me, it evokes the idea of a shipment of people. Slaves were a "shipment"--a "product" even--and that's where the heart of the problem lies.

The Shipment will debut in Chicago, which is historically referred to as one of America's most racially-segregated cities--any relationship there?
I have been dying to come to Chicago. Years ago, there was a Time Out New York story about Chicago. I was very aware of the race issues in Chicago and I really wanted to go there. I am very excited to see what happens. The Shipment has been to liberal, white venues in cities such as Portland and Seattle, and we even had a diverse audience in North Carolina, which was also fun. I am excited to see what will happen for us in Chicago. One of the actors is a native of the city, so all his family will be at the play. And the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) is just a fantastic venue, too!

The Shipment runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., from Friday-Saturday, Mar. 26-27 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, Mar. 28 at 3pm. Tickets are $10-$25 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 312-397-4010.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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