Friday, September 30, 2016

theater: Crowded Fire Brings in The Shipment

“The Shipment”
Sept 22-Oct 15 2016

Thick House
1695 18th St  San Francisco

Reviewed by Christine Okon

“Are you a racist?

We are hearing that question lot lately, as if the expected answer is a simple and absolute Ja or Nein. But how easy it is for us to dwell in ambiguity, no matter subtle and unconscious.

Crowded Fire Theater, always a step before the curve, is delivering playwright Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,” a kinetic and dynamic mix of the stereotypes, nuances, and beliefs about culture and race that thread through our subconscious.

The play begins with a black man (Howard Johnson) alone on stage, a comic emcee who acts in a strange way that is not quite identifiable, and unnerving. Then two remarkable dancers (William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, who has the leap of a gazelle) move in a dark and frenetic parody of a minstrel show (or not), flying around, leaping, tapping, chest bumping, cakewalking in a crazy rush of stereotypical, and supposedly “intrinsic” rhythm. To choreograph such chaos, as did Rami Margron, is meeting a remarkable challenge.

We wait for a crescendo, a finale, something to tell us what’s going on, but it never comes. 
William Hartfield (l) and Nican Robinson fly in The Shipment (photo by Pak Han)
What follows is a montage of familiar tableaus: the aspiring kid with the brave single mom, the neighborhood kid bouncing the B-ball, the drug dealer, the rapper, the Uncle Remus old guy spewing ephemeral and unheard wisdom, the dialog of guns and the shocking routine of drive-by shootings. 

Each actor brings life to several different characters, and especially wonderful is Nkechi Emeruwa who switched from mama to whore to grandma to staid professional. Everyone moves predictably and precisely in a disturbing, animatronic way. 

No matter which channel you flip to, you catch a flash of “black culture” that is distorted and removed. There is no clean Law and Order solving of the crime, and no knowing what happens next.

Most compelling and remarkable is when the actors move calmly forward as if to greet us, stopped only by the end of the stage. They stand still and silent as they scan the audience up and down slowly, locking eyes with individuals, looking right into your eyes, and it is your decision to sustain the gaze or turn away, to react personally, if only slightly.

As the second part begins we watch two prop hands assemble the next set: a couch, a rug, some side tables, a lamp, a liquor cart. How familiar this looks, like every sitcom apartment living room. It’s boring and precise, as devoid of color and energy as the dried brown flower arrangement on the table. 

So too are the guests that come through the door to join what turns out to be a sad birthday party, the kind of party you want to leave as soon as they take your coat. These people talk at each other as they follow some script of how to act “as if” to mask the loneliness underneath.  To see these talented actors move from high energy to painfully careful behavior is a lesson in creative versatility. 

When someone suggests that they all play a game, we hope for some kind of interesting action. The guests participate mechanically in the parlor game that ends with a zinger that follows you out of the theater and into the next day. 

Co-directors Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins have explored Young’s open script and collaborated with the actors to give them as much freedom as possible to create a special energy to upend a complacency that can be oh so comfortable.

The Shipment

Nkechi Emeruwa, William Hartfield, Howard Johnson Jr., Nican Robinson, and Michael Wayne Turner III

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez
Scenic Design:  Deanna L. Zibello
Costume Design:  Keiko Shimosato Carreiro
Lighting Design: Heather Basarab
Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl
Props Design: Devon LaBelle
Choreographer: Rami Margron
Fight Director: Carla Pantoja
Music Director: Sean Fenton
Stage Manager: M. Sohaa Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Benjamin Shiu
Production Manager: Stephanie Alyson Henderson
★ Crowded Fire Resident Artist

& such:

Thick House is a tiny venue that can get hot and stuffy very quickly, so they offered to lend audience members silk fans.  They are trying  trying to raise funds via PlayGround ( for renovations.

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