Racial identity — or more specifically, what elements of black America’s past are admissible in the definition of a modern African-American — is at the heart of Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’ combative and audacious “Neighbors.” Jacobs-Jenkins poses an overwhelming number of race-based questions and surrounds them with the ugliest of racial stereotypes by making neighbors of a minstrel show troupe and a well-educated, mixed-race household. Every line, regardless of who is speaking to whom, has a polemical quality, and as hard as it is to watch at times, a few sharp performances give “Neighbors” a firm resolution.
Jacobs-Jenkins introduces the Crow family first to the audience. The five family members wear black face and dress in cartoonish versions of plantation clothing; they are clowns, from the oversized Aunt Jemima get-up of Mammy (Baadja-Lyne) to Topsy’s (Daniele Watts) nappy bush of a hairdo and Sambo’s (Keith Arthur Bolden) jungle garb. That’s just the start. The references — some visual, some oral — reinforce every black stereotype from watermelon and fried chicken to insatiable sexual appetites to a disregard for formal education. None of it is ironic.
Their mere presence sends Richard Patterson (Derek Webster), a newly hired lecturer at a college in a tract home community resembling Orange County, through the roof. The Pattersons are new to their home, too, and he has a severe need to maintain appearances. He will go to great lengths not to give his white neighbors or college administrators any reason to believe he is not a proper fit, whether that means corralling his truant daughter Melody (Rachae Thomas) or getting the Crows out of public view, believing he may be lumped in with them in the definition of a black person.
His wife, a white woman named Jean (Julia Campbell), plays welcome wagon with Zip (Leith Burke) while Richard is at college; she views him as thoughtful and pleasant, an attitude for which her husband has no patience. He erupts — loudly and physically — at the mere thought of her friendly overtures, race playing the fulcrum of their debates.
Are the Crows “too black” for Richard? Was Richard predatory when it came to women not of color during his dating years? Was Jean’s attraction to Richard “because he was different” racially motivated?
Those questions provide the particulars for an even greater issue to be examined, specifically, what connections to our past are suitable for defining our future? The Crows are entertainers with an outdated show that, at best, could be classified as post-slavery, yet Richard sees the family as an affront to every civil rights advancement ever made.
Underneath this Sturm und Drang a romantic relationship blossoms between the families’ two teenagers, the shy innocent Jim Crow (James Edward Shippy) and the thrill-seeking, angst-ridden Melody. Jim has never attended school, envious that Melody has a shot at a private education; she sees his world as one of adventure, the Crow family welcoming rather than combative.
Simultaneously, as a black person, she sees a natural way to fit in. The Crows represent a black community unknown to her and in their rehearsal space she feels a race-based kinship that does not exist elsewhere in her world mostly populated by white people.
Shippy and Thomas, in their strong and nuanced portrayals, bring a much needed tenderness to the production. Director Nataki Garrett uses their softness and gentle smiles as a buffer to the harshness of the rest of the drama, positioning their romance toward the back of the stage and on the perimeter. It creates a calming contrast to the in-your-face staging of the Crows doing their “act” and Richard’s battles with Jean and Zip, a notion that worlds can collide and coexist in harmony.
Of the members of the Crow family, only Zip develops as a character beyond his minstrel show character. Burke gives Zip a visceral charm and gracefulness in his interactions with Campbell, and the chemistry between the two is on par with the Shippy-Thomas pairing, even as his intentions in the relationship appear to potentially shift. In a show filled with questions, their relationship is just one more.
Likeable as Zip is, Webster creates similar feeling in Richard, the character most audiences will identify with thanks to his clearly articulated shifts in temperament. Webster’s portrayal is filled with emotional ebbs and flows and Jacobs-Jenkins’ script is filled with button-pushers for the psyche of Richard, a Greek classics teacher who prefers using the wayback machine to identify issues of class, struggle and happiness. Webster conveys joy when we see him in front of a class, triumph when he details his day to Jean, frustration when it comes to dealing with Melody and anger any time the issue of race rattles the status quo.
Campbell, the one white character, has yet to find a proper emotional tenor for her finale, a crucial soliloquy she delivers at fever pitch. She handles the welcoming and questioning elements of her character smartly, yet once she joins the Greek chorus of shouting voices she blends into the deafening din.
Baadja-Lyne, as the Crow matriarch Mammy, Bolden, as brawny son Sambo, and Watts, as wacky, child-like Topsy, give affecting performances in their cartoonish roles. Topsy has an artistic epiphany that, like Sambo’s sexual interaction with a melon, cannot be summed up in a simple description.
The spare, nondescript set of a yard, the Crows’ rehearsal space and the Patterson’s dining area are sufficiently designated by the bright lights of J. Kent Inasy. Costume designer Naila Alladin Sanders has a field day with the Crows and dresses Richard Patterson in smart suits that convey upward mobility with a sense of style.