Magic Time! ‘Unpacking Racism’: A Q&A with Psalmayene 24, Director of Forum Theatre’s ‘The Shipment’

Before I spoke with Psalmayne 24 about his direction of The Shipment—which plays through June 13, 2015, at Forum Theatre—I read the play by Young Jean Lee.

John Stoltenberg.
John Stoltenberg.

John: I found the script powerful and deep. It’s a really disruptive depiction of race and racism. Theatrically it’s almost shocking in its originality of form. 

Psalmayene 24.
Psalmayene 24.

Psalm: Yes, yes

Would you talk about what the play means to you?

The play is structured as a minstrel show. When I found that out, it gave me pause, because of the history of minstrelsy and its racist and demeaning qualities. But when I read Young Jean Lee’s play, I saw how structurally it harkened back to the form, but what she’s really doing is coming at race and perceptions of blackness and racism in a subversive way. She’s trying to dismantle what our knee-jerk responses to these stereotypes are.

The play certainly asks the audience to confront their discomfort. It begins with a rude, crude standup routine.

Yes, yes. And that’s part of the brilliance of the piece. She’s shocking us into a state of unbalance, so we’re not sitting there comfortably looking at a show and feeling smug about ourselves.

Sometimes when contemporary plays deal with race, there seems to be a consideration of the white comfort zone that impedes the truthfulness of the storytelling. The script of The Shipment doesn’t mollycoddle that comfort zone ever.

Not at all.

And I read the play not knowing that the author was Asian.


Young Jean Lee. Photo by Blaine Davis.
Young Jean Lee. Photo by Blaine Davis.

This writer is almost an outside observer on a culture—but with a very sharp eye.

It certainly begs the question, “What is a black play? What is black art? What is a black playwright?” She wrote the play based off of conversations that she had with the original cast. The process of creating it was very smart, because you hear an authentic black perspective in the material.

She spoke with her cast about the stereotypical roles that they had either been offered or were available to them as black actors. The first part of the play addresses that, and then for the last piece of the play she spoke to them about roles they had always wanted to play. The fact that she had the respect to include the voices of her original cast in her writing process speaks a lot to her sensitivity.

There’s a sudden transformation in the middle, a mindblowing shift to the second part of the play—and I’m not going to give it away.


And there’s no indication in the script about what the title The Shipment  means. I was told it could refer to a slave-trade shipment.

That’s a riff I also would agree with. You think of cargo shipment: Africans were imported to America. And now the African-American black image has been exported globally. I was in India last year, and in a hotel lounge in Mombai I saw a Jay-Z video on the TV screen—and it just seemed normal, nobody blinked. Then it dawned on me: This is one of America’s main exports—not only hip-hop but the image of black people. I think the title speaks to that. You ship things in boxes. The African American image has been boxed in stereotypes.

How have the actors engaged with the text?

The rehearsal process has been a very exciting one. The playwright says something about the characterizations existing between stock stereotypes and some unidentifiable form—and the possibilities within that are really infinite. We were looking to create something that had never been done before, so there was a lot of exploration. There was a lot of setting a character then changing it, then setting the foundation of a character and layering on physical or vocal nuances that would enrich characters but also stayed true to the vision of the playwright. It’s been a fun time.

I can’t imagine a white audience member leaving without having reflected on how they look at black people.

I think that’s part of the whole intention of the play. And then what I would love is for people to eventually come back to the question, Well, who am I?—which I think is one of the most essential questions in theater and possibly in life. We’re talking about the identity of black people, but how do you know who someone is? Is it by watching television, is it by watching a play? Is it by a conversation, a dialog? Think about how we assume, or make judgments about who people are of any race, before we even get a chance to know them.

What does the play say right now to white DC and to black DC?

It says we have to take the time to really engage creatively with other people. That’s a universal message and it crosses racial lines. We’ve heard the refrain, the battle cry: Black Lives Matter. That’s just the start of it. We have to realize that all life has value—particularly those lives that we’ve stripped of dignity and of worth and of value. My vision of theater is always to bring everybody into the audience. I love to see a multicultural mixed audience. I’ve always believed in a diverse world—not necessarily “Kum ba yah” but a world where all cultures are seen and respected. So ultimately this piece right now is about us being able to have a true, full, and open conversation with other people.

Thank you, Psalm.

Thank you so much.

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The Shipment plays May 21-June 13, 2015 at Forum Theatre performing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre  – 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8279, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.


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