By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' new racially charged play, Neighbors, set in a white suburb, a frustrated Caucasian housewife, Jean (Julia Campbell), asks her upwardly mobile, African-American husband, Richard (Derek Webster), "When you look at me, do you see me as your white wife? Or do you see me as your wife who happens to be white?"
"Well," he replies, "it depends on if that's a stupid question or a question that happens to be stupid."
It's a very witty evasion in a scintillating and beautifully performed play that, like Richard, is frequently ducking for cover.
The surrealistic comedy, in its West Coast premiere, opened last week at the Matrix Theatre, where it was initially developed before its premiere in the New York Public Theater's LAB series.
You may wonder how a play can be described as "ducking for cover" when it opens with a hollerin', hootin', ostentatious and noisy troupe of black minstrels, in blackface, moving in next door to Richard and Jean, bringing jars of pig intestines, along with crates of other vintage African-American stereotypes. Take Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), who waddles around callin' to Jesus for strength like a massive Aunt Jemima, with head scarf and a matching watermelon design on her apron and her earrings (costumes by Naila Aladdin Sanders), when not slapping her kin senseless. These kin would be Zip (Leith Burke), Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden) and Jim (James Edward Shippy).
Amidst Richard's emotional collapse and the comparatively realistic disintegration of his marriage, the goofy troupe next door (on the other side of set designer John Iacovelli's bifurcated stage) performs entertainments such as one by lusty Topsy (Daniele Watts), who, with an array of bright ribbons in her nappy hair and a teensy, teasing skirt, puckers her lips seductively and pouts mockingly while clutching her knees together, opening them, giggling and, in a later scene, masturbating with one of the bananas hanging from her jungle skirt. Or Zip, trying to carry too many objects while his trousers drop, thereby revealing his gargantuan phallus. That's before he picks up a dropped bugle with his anus — which one would presume is clenched as tightly as his teeth when he performs the deed. Then there's the act by Sambo, who gets his garden-hose penis caught in a gasoline-powered lawn mower that he's too stupid to operate. (He scratches his hair-netted head in an oversized gesture of imbecility.) At first, his rope-penis is so elongated, it disappears offstage. When he finally reels it in, the head is wrapped around a watermelon, into which he masturbates, before drinking the brew. Atop a spinet, the ashes of dad, Jim Crow, reside in a bust of the goggle-eyed patriarch, who's also in blackface and with painted lips. These are the "Crow Family Minstrels," the embodiment of white folks' historic fantasies and fears, performing acts of self-degradation and self-deprecation.
Spying them from his living room, lit by J. Kent Inasy with prison bar–like shadows, Richard repeatedly refers to them as "country niggers," an expression his wife finds appalling. Richard is an adjunct professor of classics, who's been given the opportunity to fill in teaching in the theater department of the local university, providing, he hopes, his opportunity for tenure. But the pressure is rising, along with his blood pressure, for which he's already on medication. His greatest concern is that, in the eyes of the local white academics, he will be associated with them, next door, that the legacy of his race will intrude upon his social and professional ascent to chambers of white power and prestige.
Richard denies to Jean ever having used the N-word. His defense of his own propriety, however, wears thin, when, in the midst of his emotional and medical collapse, he calls his own wife a "stupid white cunt," to which, when she regains some composure, she replies by calling him "the only nigger in this neighborhood."
This is not a play that, on the surface, would appear to be ducking for cover, but that's just what it does, as though shock is a substitute for breadth of vision.
This is because, beneath its razor-sharp dialogue and the emotional integrity of its core characters — Richard, Jean and their cantankerous/sweet 15-year-old daughter, Melody (Rachae Thomas) — the sweep of images suggests that this is a play about Race in America. And it sort of is, in a 1980s identity-politics kind of way. It's the kind of play that could have been — and was being — written 30-plus years ago. Watching Neighbors recalls the memory of George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (which also premiered at the New York Public Theatre), with its unmasking parade of African-American stereotypes on a slave-ship flight from the 17th century to the present, from Andrew Jackson to Jackson Browne. In those years (the mid 1980s), Wolfe said in a New York Times interview how, as the newly appointed artistic director of the Public, he recalled his rage at hailing a cab in Manhattan and being passed over for white customers, perhaps because they were perceived as better tippers. Neighbors is, at core, a play about perceptions.