nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 5, 2010
NEIGHBORS by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is what it says on the outside of the program they hand you at The Public Theater.
G(BO) ERS by BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS is what it says on the inside, followed by the cast and credits.
The "N" word has been clumsily superimposed on the play's title; and that clumsy sensationalism pervades nearly every moment of this too-long, overwrought, willfully provoking new play, which is presented by Public LAB, a developmental program for new work at the esteemed and long-running nonprofit home of the New York Shakespeare Festival.
You have probably heard something about Neighbors, for it was the subject of a full-length feature article in The New York Times on February 2, a piece that accurately reported:
The first image in the new play Neighbors... is a family of five "hooting, hollering, joking" as they carry boxes into their new home, according to the stage directions. What makes this unlike a usual move-in day is that the family, the Crows, is made up of black actors in blackface....The full-length play... is partly a study of black identity and self-loathing as experienced by the Crows' highly discomfited next-door neighbor, who is black. He, his white wife and their daughter interact with the blackface family—Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Jim and the “pickaninny” Topsy—as the Crows engage in a variety of outrageous acts involving watermelons, their genitals, falling-down pants and exaggerated antebellum dialects.
One wants to believe that Jacobs-Jenkins and his collaborators aren't seeking to shock audiences merely for the sake of publicity, but Neighbors fails to make much of a case otherwise. Everything promised in the foregoing paragraph happens in this play (and much more). The interludes in which the Crows perform vulgar parodies of demeaning racist humor that might have appeared in real minstrel shows or movies from a less enlightened time—might have but for the overt display of (fake) penises and breasts utilized in ways that would be considered pornographic in almost any context—are the most obvious places where the script goes so far over the top that meaning is sacrificed to sensationalism.
Which is not to say that the play isn't about something: it is, as the Times excerpt says, about a black man coming face-to-(black)face with a history he'd prefer to ignore. At its best, Neighbors uses the character of Zip Coon Crow as a kind of mirror in which any disturbing racial stereotype that we might be suppressing/repressing gets reflected, which is really interesting. But too much of the play is puzzling and too much feels not quite jelled; perhaps the Public erred in opening Neighbors up for review after having initially decided not to.
For example, why are the Crows in blackface? What, apart from the initial jolt of this image on a stage in 2010, does it convey to us? This is the elephant in the room in this play: they clearly are meant to be in blackface (as all of the characters in the play acknowledge that they are). Mammy tells us that she never sleeps, which makes me think she's really supposed to be an archetype rather than a "real" person, but that's the only indication in the script that that is the case; otherwise, throughout, the Coons interact more or less naturalistically with their neighbors, the Pattersons.
The characters of Richard Patterson and his wife and daughter never made much sense to me, either. To give just one example: Patterson says he fears that his daughter Melody might be assaulted by Jim Crow, Mammy's middle son—yet neither he nor his wife take any proactive steps to protect Melody (and indeed the main conflict of the second act is built around her disappearance: why weren't her parents paying more attention to her?).
Now, all of this said, it's clear that Neighbors struck a deep chord with many people in the audience (whites as well as blacks). Jacobs-Jenkins is good at pressing buttons, but he's also got some things on his mind and he has a strong theatrical sense of how to say them. Director Niegel Smith manages the planned chaos of the piece well enough, but there are long stretches of the second act that drag badly. The cast is game and hard-working (with Jocelyn Bioh, who plays Topsy, evidencing significant talent in a long musical number, and Birgit Huppuch giving the play's most solid and well-realized performance as Mrs. Patterson). And the ambitious design contains a highlight in Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson's inventive and sometimes explosive sound design.
But I left Neighbors deeply dissatisfied, and frustrated by the mixed messages of the piece. When the Crows play out scenes of authentic (i.e., white-created) minstrelsy, or allusions to pop culture artifacts like Gone with the Wind, I understand what the device signifies. But when they tackle stereotypes of more recent vintage (Topsy lip-synching to Whitney Houston and Donna Summer, for example), I don't know what I'm supposed to understand. Are successful black artists minstrels if they sell a lot of records to white people?
Jacobs-Jenkins may want to spend less time trying to get our attention, and more time thinking out some coherent arguments about whatever aspects of the important issue of race in America he wants to communicate.