Neighbors - A Play With Cartoons
REVIEW by Willard Manus
The young African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins lights a theatrical firecracker with NEIGHBORS, now in its explosive West Coast premiere at the Matrix. Rude, funny, ballsy and pugnacious, the play dissects race and color in America in a highly original, un-politically correct way, slicing and dicing every taboo it encounters.
Richard Patterson (Derek Webster) is an assimilated and uptight African-American college teacher married to Jean (Julia Campbell), a white woman who is a frustrated poet. They have a snotty, screechy 15-year-old daughter, Melody (Rachae Thomas). Richard, whose hold on the American Dream is tenuous, is appalled when The Crows move in across the way. Tricked out in blackface and buffoonish costumes, they are a family of minstrels with stereotypical names like Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), Zip (Leith Burke), Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), Jim (James Edward Shippy) and Topsy (Daniele Watts).
When The Crows begin to rehearse their coon show--racial jokes and songs delivered in the caricatured fashion much loved by white America--Richard has a fit. These "niggers" (his word) are a disgrace, a threat to his way of life. Worse things happen when Melody and Jean begin to find themselves sexually attracted to Jim and Zip, respectively. Richard's resulting emotional meltdown is hastened by The Crows' ribald riffs on the touchy subjects of watermelon and black genitalia. The Crows also merrily satirize such contemporary minstrels as Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Just about every aspect of race and color is investigated by the playwright, whose fierce intelligence matches his savage sense of humor.
Jenkins also benefits greatly from the help his actors and director have given him. The eight-person cast delivers superb performances, and Nataki Garrett has found the right style to match Jenkins' singular voice.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. 323-960-7774 or plays411.com/neighbors