North Vancouver play that deals with racism interrupted by heckler

A scene from a satirical play about race and the way black identity is represented in the media briefly turned into a hostile exchange between an actor in the show and a member of the audience in North Vancouver last Thursday.

SpeakEasy Theatre’s production of The Shipment, a critically acclaimed satire first staged in the U.S. in 2009, ran at Presentation House Theatre from Oct. 8 to 12.

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The show, which features five black actors portraying a series of stereotypical characters in order to get audiences to question the nature of these stereotypes in the culture at large, opens with a 15-minute stand-up comedy set. During the scene, actor and co-director Omari Newton channels famous black comedians such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.

According to Newton, he was heckled by an older white woman during the opening scene of the Oct. 10 show.

“The content in the stand-up comedy set is deliberately written as quite provocative, touching on shocking material that deals with societal norms and race and calls out white supremacy. There was an elderly white woman in the audience who was very loudly and audibly complaining about the content and speaking out,” said Newton.

Newton did his best to remain in character and ignore the woman’s interruptions. The front of house manager even appeared at one point in order to quell the situation, according to Newton.

“I wanted to let it go, but then I heard her loudly say: ‘Is it going to be like this all night?’" said Newton. “And then in character as the comedian I confronted her using choice words and she continued to complain.”

The woman eventually got up mid-show to leave the theatre. But as she left she walked on to the stage and gave Newton the finger.

“The audience was very supportive and cheered her out of the room,” said Newton.

Newton said he was surprised and angered by the incident, noting it demonstrated a high level of entitlement and disrespect.

“If you’re not OK with the content of a piece and want to leave, that’s great – that’s your right,” said Newton. “To make a spectacle like that is ridiculous.”

Following the show, Newton took to social media to share his thoughts on what transpired. After seeing his post, the playwright Young Jean Lee got in touch with Newton to express her solidarity.

Following the incident, Presentation House Theatre, which has a mandate to build bridges between cultures and diverse audiences, was extremely supportive, said Newton.

In a statement, Presentation House Theatre artistic director Kim Selody notes that the incident brought the show’s powerful message off the stage in a real and visceral way.

“After the show there was a deep and honest dialogue between the audience and cast of The Shipment – something made more possible by the jarring experience collectively shared in our space,” stated Selody. “We are grateful to the actors for their bravery in bringing this show here, and for the audiences who dared to examine their own conscious and unconscious biases though this experience.”

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