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.
And though our universities at least now contain a higher percentage of African-American tenured faculty — Richard's dream — and the nation does actually have an African-American president, playwright Jacobs-Jenkins is right to assert that racism has not gone away. But it doesn't look the way it did, even in the 1980s. Interracial marriage in a historically racist stronghold such as Texas is no big deal anymore, at least in the larger cities. Still, the shadow presences of incendiary racial stereotypes linger and have been driven deeper below the surface, nestling in crevices of America's psyche.
There's a play to be written about that, but Jacobs-Jenkins hasn't yet written it.
Despite its suggestion of an epic, national sweep, Neighbors is a small play about a hollow man with hollow ambitions. He is, from the play's start, more concerned with what he perceives to be his socially superior neighbors, and what they will think of him, than what he thinks of himself. This is why he has high blood pressure. This is why his daughter and wife grow to despise him. And the play's cartoons next door are simply a manifestation of his middle-class black fears — that he comes from the Crows, with their blackface, that they are a part of him.
But they're really not. The family next door is a white invention, and the Crows even say so, that they're giving the white folk what they want to see.
Being historic and now antique, the stereotypes embodied by the Crows are comparatively benign. The family's worst offense, other than trafficking in stereotypes — which are so brazen as to be mocking — is being loud. They're singin' and dancin' and waving oversized genitals made of cloth. Nobody's stealing hubcaps. Nobody's committing rape or home invasion. Nobody's selling drugs at the middle school down the street.
Perhaps the most suggestive detail is that Richard and Jean are renting their home with an option to buy. The Crows, however, arrive having purchased the house next door — a fascinating ownership stake that's mentioned once and then dropped. They have no designs on taking over the neighborhood.
Yet Richard displays Othello-like jealousy when gentle Jimmy from next door starts a romance with his daughter, and she with him; and Zip, who happens to be gay, befriends Richard's wife. Richard is being held hostage by some imagined guilt-by-association. The drama is entirely inside Richard's head, with obvious spillover effects upon his marriage and his relations with his daughter.
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And so, the play surveys an ethnic subset of one man's middle-class neuroses, as though that's a stand-in for the state of racism in America. It's a small play posing as a big one, an old play posing as a new one.
It's hard to imagine a better production, under Nataki Garrett's staging. The two families are of different universes and performance styles. Yet Garrett meets the daunting challenge of having them all belong to a single performance. Much of this occurs in the tender scenes of friendship between the two families — between Jimmy and Melody, and between Zip and Jean.
Amidst the robust ensemble, two women stand out with the kind of performances that have you pleading for their next scene — Daniele Watts' sassy, sexy Topsy, and Julia Campbell's mesmerizingly sweet, daffy and searingly smart Jean.
NEIGHBORS | By BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS | MATRIX THEATRE, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A. | Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through October 24 | (323) 852-1445