The hardest laugh

The year 2009 was seen by many as the birth of a new discussion on race relations. Many saw the election of America’s first black president as the start of a post-racial era. At that time, playwright Young Jean Lee was finishing off her newest effort, The Shipment. A pointed and upfront commentary on racial stereotyping and its connections to entertainment, the play will run from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5 at the Firehall Arts Centre.

Featuring an all-black cast and a willingness to go straight into the heart of the matter, The Shipment conveyed both the awkwardness of self-reflection and the uncomfortable truths of great comedy during its initial run. Fast forward to the present where the ‘post-racial era’ line seems more unsure, local Speakeasy Theatre troupe has brought the direct and unflinching play to Vancouver. Community and Diversity coordinator & artistic associate Omari Newton and artistic director Kayvon Khoshkam join forces as co-directors for this production.

Understanding through theatrics

Kayvon Khoshkam

As the social justice movement does its best to reshape the world, it has brought with it a consistent and unyielding pressure to reveal and remove any instance of cultural appropriation. Though The Shipment is about the black experience, its creator, Young Jean Lee, is a Korean-American. Khoshkam explains the way Lee avoided appropriation by first explaining the purpose of theatre.

“The integral spirit of theatre is the empathetic quality of learning and understanding somebody else’s experience. We must all hold the proper space, and we all must be present,” he says.

Khoshkam further noted that the process of learning and understanding somebody else’s experience meant – for Lee – sitting and working closely with the original black cast to learn about their worldview and desires. In doing so, the aim was never to make the piece about her or to garner all of the attention but to make a truthful extension of their realities. That truth reminded the Speakeasy cast of their own vicissitudes.

“There were many parts of the piece that resonated with the cast as well. As black artists we are all hyper aware of the many stereotypes associated with our identities,” Newton explains. “Our job as directors was to make sure we articulated our understanding of the piece to the cast so that we could address any concerns that came up.”

The subversive truth

Omari Newton.

While living in a multicultural metropolis, Vancouverites frequently fall into the trap of seeing themselves as well integrated and above the baser tribalism that fuels stereotyping, but Speakeasy brought The Shipment here precisely to challenge that notion.

“We were aware that this community can often feel that race issues are the concern of the rest of the world. The Shipment is surprising and subversive in how it reflects our own overt or hidden bias. Whether we like it or not, we all have preconceptions of how we think of people, and how we believe we behave,” Khoshkam points out.

In Speakeasy Theatre, dialogue with neighbouring audience members is imperative and the only way to find out where and what people agree with, disagree with or downright don’t like. Newton reinforces this idea by stating that any work of art worth considering will land on audience members differently.

“Propaganda aims to convey a specific message or political view,” he continues. “Theatre aims to affect people on a visceral level.”

With its keen edge and adept cast and direction, Speakeasy will surely find its mark. The Shipment promises to be an eye-opening journey that audiences won’t want to miss.

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