at The Matrix on Melrose.. a tight little space with three rows and a broad stage.. The play turns on an upwardly mobile family in a sort of Stepford neighborhood.. Little boxes on a hillside that mirror one another in a perfectly bookmatched patchwork. Stage Right an empty space waiting to be occupied. Stage Left a sort of kitchen where The Pattersons live. John Iacovelli’s set, tinted in Diebenkorn pastels, announces nothing out of the ordinary, fraught with sameness. We are lulled into the notion that it’s safe here. Nothing could be further from the truth.
My lead line for this piece kept changing. “If you think you are Liberal, think again.”
“If you think you are not prejudiced, think again.”
“Led down the Garden Path, then bitchslapped… hard!”
None of these do justice to the brilliant writing the young black playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, brings to the stage. It’s important that we know he’s black because white folk can’t say nigger and get away with it. They can’t portray a bawdy stereotypical Negro family of profane minstrels, ready to rub your face in the stuff of hundreds of years of struggle. But, Jacobs-Jenkins can and does. It’s poetry that ranks with Genet and Beckett.
Richard Patterson, (brilliant Derek Webster) a forty-something black adjunct theatre history professor wants… really needs, to gain a full time teaching position. His beautiful Caucasian wife (remarkable Julia Campbell) and gorgeous fifteen year old daughter (lithe Rachae Thomas) live their lives in a neighborhood where it's taken a year for them to be accepted. And now... BAM!.. the house next door is sold to a troupe of traveling players.. each and all stereotypical black folks.. “Niggers!” exclaims Richard because he’s black and he can use that word...
It’s the Crow Family: Mammy, Zip Coon, Topsy, Sambo and Jim, young Jim Crow! All in minstrel black face, they spout stereotypical black euphemisms. Loud and raucous, every member of the family wears an under taste of anger, except for Jim (talented James Edward Shippy) who, though also in black face, seems less angry and says that he doesn’t want to be just like his Daddy, now departed this fair Earth going on a year. The plan is to make a comeback with their show. It’s been a year since Daddy Crow died.
Mammy (superb Baadja-Lyne) in Aunt Jemima drag, runs the troupe with an iron hand, supplemented broadly by Zip Coon Crow’s (slick Leith Burke) slap stick and Steppin Fetchit moves. Sambo (ghetto tough Keith Arthur Bolden) reeks of rap, attitude and muscles. Naila Alladin Sanders’ costumes are works of art.
Topsy (an amazing Danielle Watts) enters, Buckwheat hair in raggity bows, dumping her box full of white baby dolls, (which may be Jacobs-Jenkins’ prediction for the future?) mooning and charming the audience with anything but innocent burlesque.
Jean looks out her suburban window and relishes the diversity that is coming, while Richard feels threatened, perhaps having overcome his blackness. With years of effort, his perfect speech and specialty in ancient Greek drama must place him on a higher social level that those people.
The plot: surreal… the issues: real and damning; profane and pornographic bracketed by frightening truths about our own prejudices and the 'race situation' in this country, sounds a wake-up call for not only our society, but for the world. As fear and antipathy insidiously provoke confrontations not only between the races, but religions; the people and the government, the military, law enforcement, the truth is that we must find a way to harmony in this current ever divisive atmosphere.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ lesson arrives on many levels. Shock for the sake of shock, not mildly profane, but deliberately pornographic becomes only slightly balanced as Topsy breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and in Josephine Baker bananas, steps into an interpretive dance that lets us know there’s more to her than silliness and mooning.
Nataki Garrett’s unobtrusive direction keeps the action moving until the final scene, the ultimate moment, that at once pits the mirror images of Zip and Richard, the nigger and the colored man, against the final tableau: the confrontation of the Crows.
Not for the faint of heart.
NEIGHBORS (A Play with Cartoons)
The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Thursday through Saturday at 7:30PM
Sundays at 2:30PM
Through October 24, 2010
323 960 7774