Audiences that go to watch this weekend’s production of “The Shipment” will enter the basement of Green Hall, a venue the show’s director chose so that viewers feel as if they are in “a white dungeon.”
“This show is about being at Yale and being bombarded by media [stereotypes],” said Timmia Hearn Feldman ’12, the play’s director. “I want people to come to this show because it allows you to laugh at yourself.”
The play, which is this year’s mainstage production by the Heritage Theatre Ensemble, a student organization that promotes black theater on campus, centers around the way blackness is depicted, how expectations are made on the basis of race and issues of privilege, Hearn Feldman said. Leonard Thomas ’14, the ensemble’s president, said the production “focuses on race in a way that is not really talked about at Yale [ … and … ] has the potential to make a lot of people uncomfortable.”
Nicky Davis ’13, one of the five actors in the production, said she thinks the play, written by OBIE award-winning playwright and director Young Jean Lee, highlights the assumptions white people make about black lifestyles.
“Because it’s so grounded in stereotypes of blackness as received by a white audience, it can be understood by Yale [audiences],” Davis said.
The play incorporates stereotypes prevalent in pop culture, she added — one character is named “Record Company Executive,” while another is dubbed “Video Hoe.”
Hearn Feldman said the play comprises a prologue and three scenes: a stand-up comedy and two micro-dramas.
Hearn Feldman said the play comprises a prologue and three scenes, including a comedian’s sketch, the story of a young black man aspiring to be a rapper and a dinner party that ends with a racist joke.
Mitra Yazdi ’15, the only non-black member of the cast, argued that societal assumptions reflect the idea that the level of fame a young black person can achieve is tied to “drugs, money and hos,” while white people live out their success in “a nice living room.”
The show’s poster depicts a white mouth with black lipstick, all inside a television set, which Hearn Feldman said highlights how media outlets present a white perception of blackness.
Davis said she finds these stereotypes “fun to work with” because of what she sees as a common feeling that Yale is home to few “real” black people, but a number of individuals are seen as “white black people.”
“Where I am from, that means you’re on the honor roll, you took AP classes in high school … you eat salad on a regular basis,” she said. “There are these weird things that are considered white stereotypes and things that make you ‘not black.’”
Davis said that some black Yalies who come to college from high schools at which they were no other “white black kids” identify more strongly as black on campus than at home because “there are black people here that are like [them].”
“Blackness at Yale is a hybrid between what we’re used to at home and the person we are in the classroom, where we want to seem intelligent,” said Yazdi, who added that she thought she was half-black until she was a teenager and mainly had black friends growing up.
Yazdi said that she has noticed she acts differently with her white friends from Yale than she does with her friends back home, which has caused her to re-evaluate the way she treats people, including local New Haven residents to whom she feels she can relate more than the average Yale student.
Thomas said he does not believe students talk about race very frequently, except during class — and even then, they avoid the uncomfortable topics discussed in “The Shipment.” In recent years, the topic of race has risen to the campus consciousness, he said, citing a Black Student Alliance at Yale project last year about blackness at Yale, a controversy over the concept of “colorblindness” on campus and racist graffiti found in a residential college two years ago.
As part of minority groups, Hearn Feldman said, she feels that both she and the playwright-director Young Jean Lee are able to identify with the problems that African-Americans face, and therefore work with black actors to give “a very authentic” portrayal of these issues, even though they may not have faced the racism their cast members have.
For audience members not part of minority groups, it may be particularly hard to appreciate issues of racial stereotyping, Hearn Feldman said.
Actress Carol Crouch ’14 noted that “The Shipment” is in fact a comedy, allowing the production to explore stereotypes in a way that is not serious to the point of causing people to feel attacked.
“In the brochure, members of the production team are all identified by the minority we belong to,” Hearn Feldman said. “We’re making fun of the fact that we like to identify ourselves by these simple, monolithic, one-sided identities.”
Hearn Feldman, who has previously directed five shows at Yale and said that “The Shipment” will be her last, said that the theater canon in which most Yale productions are rooted does not provide opportunities to explore the back experience, or even give sufficient casting opportunities to black actors.
“This is not something you’re going see at Yale again,” she added. “I really like the idea that you’re not just being entertained — you’re getting something that’s really, really new, and about this moment in time.”
“The Shipment” runs at Green Hall from Thursday to Saturday.