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Boxed: Preface to a Postmodern Minstrel Show

Posted on June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

I remember the first negro musical I ever saw.
[…] it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise.

                      —Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Director Psalmayene 24 calls Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment a “postmodern minstrel show,” which both acknowledges society’s penchant for declaring status beyond things and aptly frames the experience of this production. Postmodernism announces a break from modernism in its embrace of juxtaposed styles and moods, including unapologetically mixing realistic and nonrealistic elements as well as forms of high and low art. It is bound to poststructuralism in its rejection of fixed meaning in advocacy of ongoing negotiations with what has gone before, what has not come, what is unseen but still present, what is deferred, and what is unavailable. In addition, postmodern stages a resistance to the Obama-era fantastically quixotic term post-racial, which describes a utopia that is yet to be. 

The play offers a meditation on black stereotypes by way of the minstrel show in the first half and well—you’ll see—in the second half. Lee intended for the play “to walk the line between stock forms of black entertainment and some unidentifiable weirdness to the point where the audience wasn't sure what they were watching or how they were supposed to respond.” By using the minstrel show as an anchor, the play exposes the extent to which black figures in contemporary entertainment are haints (or ghosts) of blackface characters of the 19th and early 20th century.

In its traditional form, the minstrel show has three parts. The first section features songs, upbeat dancing, and variety entertainments. The second part, called the olio, is punctuated by a comedic yet affectedly critical stump speech. The third section, known as the afterpiece, consists of a one-act play that typically shows an idealized South wherein newly-freed slaves sing of yearnings to return to good ole’ massa and to the simple pleasures of plantation life. Structurally, The Shipment duplicates the minstrel format while upending conventional (black) narratives and revising its content for today.

If, over the course of the play, you find yourself uncomfortable, paranoid, or watchful of everyone, stay with it; it’s working. If not, stay with it, and later interrogate what it means that your sense of comfort remained intact.  

Otis Ramsey-Zoe,The Shipment dramaturg

Lecturer of Theatre Arts, Howard University; Associate Artistic Director, banished? productions; Series Editor, NoPassport Press’s Dreaming the America series; Freelance Dramaturg; OpenForum Facilitator.





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