'Neighbors'

Savagely funny cartoon of a play about racial identity in a post-racial society.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ savagely funny cartoon of a play about racial identity in a post-racial society — titled “Neighbors,” but provocatively rendered in the program as “N(e)IG(h)G(bo)ERS” — goes to show what a well-managed workshop can do for a raw script. Emerging from Public LAB development with a smashing cast and super production values, show realizes its scribe’s satiric intentions of exposing a bourgeois interracial family to the stereotyping it flatly refuses to see. Counterproductively, Niegel Smith’s direction is so slick that the script’s wobbly focus, overwrought arias and other dramaturgical problems are disguised rather than dealt with.

That old, reliable device of dragging a curtain across the stage does nicely to divide the intimate space into settings for two discordant black households in an upscale white neighborhood.

Richard Patterson (Chris McKinney), a buttoned-up black man who teaches Greek political philosophy at a local college, lives on one side of the communal yard with his mousy white wife, Jean (Birgit Huppuch), and rebellious teen daughter, Melody (Danielle Davenport).

The black family that just moved in next door represents exactly the kind of noisy, vulgar, ill-mannered people Richard has spent his life trying to escape. In his feverish fantasies — brought to surreal life by Gabriel Berry’s outlandish costumes and blackface makeup — the newly widowed mother who has set up house with her three kids and her brother are transformed into grotesque caricatures of themselves.

Represented here as theatrical performers in a minstrel show, Mammy (Tonye Patano), her brother Zip Coon (Eric Jordan Young) and children Sambo (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Topsy (Jocelyn Bioh) step out of Richard’s nightmares and onto a stage impudently dressed with the watermelons, jungle drums, ragtime piano and spangled costumes traditionally associated with the race show Richard has made of their lives.

Only Jim Crow (Brandon Gill), a gawky teenager who has not inherited his late father’s dubious talents for singing and dancing to the white man’s tune, resists the stereotyping. Longing for a normal life, he hooks up with Davenport’s adorably rebellious Melody, which drives her anxiety-driven father close to a heart attack.

Meanwhile, Young’s subversive Zip Coon impishly insinuates himself with Jean (the very model of a neglected wife in Huppuch’s sweetly sad perf), bringing her gifts of pickled pig’s guts and awakening racial prejudices she never knew she had.

Technically, the groundwork is well laid for Richard’s inevitable meltdown. But the Big Scene in which husband and wife give voice to their suppressed racial prejudices is talky and stylistically trite. It doesn’t even seem relevant considering Richard’s real quarrel is with himself.

And despite the stylized fistfight that has Richard and Zip rolling all over the lawn trying to gouge each other’s eyes out, Richard doesn’t actually face his furies, quarreling with his wife instead of going head to head with Patano’s formidable Mammy and the rest of her brood.

The before-the-curtain sketches that scribe labels “cartoons” switch the focus in a different way. Although executed in audacious high spirits by the irrepressible Crows, these satirically obscene skits of preposterously savage, well-endowed, hyper-musical black folks are delivered in a confrontational style directly to the audience.

Like the repetitive scenes between Zip and Jean, and the extensive canoodling between Melody and Jim, all that dramaturgical hanky-panky effectively freezes poor Richard out of his own play.

Neighbors

Production

A Public Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Niegel Smith.

Creative

Set, Mimi Lien; costumes, Gabriel Berry; lighting, Peter West; sound, Ryan Rumery, Christian Frederickson; musical staging, Maija Garcia; fight direction, Lisa Kopitsky; production stage manager, Emily Park Smith. Opened March 7, 2010. Reviewed March 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN .

Cast

Topsy - Jocelyn Bioh Melody - Danielle Davenport Jim - Brandon Gill Jean - Birgit Huppuch Richard - Chris McKinney Sambo - Okieriete Onaodowan Mammy - Tonye Patano Zip - Eric Jordan Young

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