In the sixties Lenny Bruce taught society about freedom of speech and the power of language. His iconic routine, especially germane to Neighbors, where he directly addressed his audience and in jazz rhythms pointed to “a spic and a wop and a kike and nigger… a mick and a wop and a honky…” defused these epithets into simply utterances that some people use to try to defame others. The defamation is in the intent, not in the words and the playground retort, “I know you are but what am I?” and “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Bounces off me and sticks on you!” seems right to me.
Michael McClure broke ground in a big way theatrically with his play, The Beard, which was busted continually in the San Francisco area and then moved to Los Angeles where similar charges for obscenity were leveled at the actors. One account says that at the performances in L.A. there were two standing ovations, one at the end of the show and one as the actors were hauled away to be booked. McClure’s poetry and other bizarre plays, including works done at The Company Theatre in Los Angeles: The Meatball, Spider Rabbit, The Authentic Radio Life of Bruce Conner and Snoutburbler and later The Beard with Dennis Redfield and Trish Soodik and Pink Helmets, pushed the envelope… rather destroyed it vis a vis what theatre is all about. McClure, along with Alan Ginsberg, who had his issues with “obscenity”, sat at the forefront of avant garde poetry in the San Francisco area. Their loopy and succinct approach to art is what, to me, is vital to bring audiences to a state of not just simply being entertained. The polemics of Ginsberg and McClure along with a host of radical artists, including the San Francisco Mime Troupe (still active after more than fifty years of politically charged satire touring parks around the country) have and had the goal of shaking the Establishment. That’s what Neighbors does.
Passing the rough language in Neighbors, the behavior of the characters, both the cartoon Crows and the straight arrow Pattersons, reflects something deeper. It has to do with living a good life. A true life. The two dimensional Crows are not simply burlesques of black actors playing black minstrels in black face. The edge of the darkness that Jacobs-Jenkins imbues in the Crows is more. It’s a call to consciousness for anyone who can sit through the barrage of stuff he discusses in the play. American Society is slowly coming around and we still find ourselves smiling because at the time we didn’t feel that we were demeaning anyone by enjoying Eddie “Rochester” Anderson on the Jack Benny Show (indeed, Rochester was never really the foil, was he?) or Butterfly McQueen’s famous line “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!” But prejudice is not just skin deep. It’s to the bone and shall be until we become color blind. To that end, perhaps, Neighbors is divisive. As I’ve said.. we may think we are not prejudiced, but the discomfort that rises like bile as the show progresses is real and that may be Jacobs-Jenkins’ goal. Just to make sure that no matter how great we feel having elected a black President (well, half black) and even folks like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell rising to international importance, the lines of color are still within us. Martin Luther King was a hero and a martyr for a cause, but the lines of color still mark our division.
The beauty of this play is that as soon as one accepts the stereotypes: both the Crows AND the Pattersons, the foul language becomes almost incidental. What the play points out, at least to me, is that as we define ourselves, so shall we be. Or, hope to be?
What Neighbors must do for every audience who sees it is, when it comes to the final curtain, is to shake them from complacency. To do work as an audience or as an individual is not what most of us expect to do. We like things wrapped up in neat little packages. We expect a climax and then a dénouement. In the final scenes of Act II, Richard’s explosion rocks the house and not in a good way. It becomes the catalyst for the final confrontation and unfortunately.. or maybe fortunately?, resolution is left pretty much up to the audience. It’s work. Work that needs to be done. And, that does not mean that any two audience members will have the same reaction.
Stay for the video directed by Spike Lee in the lobby.