"Do you think I enjoy talking about race?" asks a stand-up comedian in the first half of The Shipment. No is the answer; he'd rather be making jokes about poop. But if Young Jean Lee's brilliant, biting play reveals anything, it's that we are far from colour blind. We still need to talk about race because race still informs our way of seeing the world – whether we admit to it or not.
The landscape of Lee's play, which has been developed with the excellent all-black cast, is one of constantly shifting sands. It opens with a dance, acting as a prelude to the minstrel show style variety of the early scenes. A stand-up then strides on stage, opening with familiar "black people are like this, white people are like this" gags, before ever more bluntly skewering the submerged racial prejudices of the audience. It's subtle as a sledgehammer, but perfectly calculated to poise us all uneasily on the edge of our seats, laughs dribbling uncertainly from our mouths. Is this really funny? Am I supposed to be laughing at this?
"Stand-up comedy gives way to a series of hilarious but incisive satirical sketches"
The Shipment trades in such discomfort, constantly changing its own rules and leaving an audience queasily unsure of how to watch it. Stand-up comedy gives way to a series of hilarious but incisive satirical sketches, in which a boy with dreams of being a rapper goes from aspiration to prison to disillusioned fame. With its storybook style dialogue and deliberately cartoonish movement, this sequence adds a surreal edge to all too familiar black stereotypes: the rapper, the drug dealer, the drive-by shooting victim. This is then followed, even more surreally, by an arresting a cappella song. Again, genre is established, subverted and fragmented.
This first half, with its fierce, head-on confrontation of racial prejudice and swirling disorientation, can all be seen as setting up the longer, seemingly naturalistic drama that forms the remainder of the play. The cast of five are now at a dinner party – the kind of painfully awkward, subtext suffocated affair that an audience will have seen countless times on stages and television screens. What begins with canapés and toasts takes an increasingly unsettling turn, as the host springs cruel surprises and dislodges revelations from his guests. But really this is a challenge to the audience; a dare to read it using the racial logic that Lee has already uncovered at work.
It may be surprising that Lee, a Korean-American, would choose to write a play about African-American identity. But perhaps thanks to her own process of grappling with these uncomfortable ideas around race in the process of making the show, we in the audience are also forced to acknowledge the lenses we view the world through and how often those are unthinkingly tinted by colour. If there is a message, it is simply for us to open our eyes and be a little less clueless about the racial prejudice that remains hardwired into our societies.
The Shipment runs at the Barbican as part of LIFT until 14 June.