“Neighbors,” a play now having its West Coast premiere at The Matrix Theatre, is an angry, nasty, hateful, and thoroughly mean-spirited take on the “black experience” in America. Its goal, I would presume, is to make its audience squirm and feel guilty. Squirm, yes. Guilty, not so much.
“Neighbors,” written by New York playwright Branden Jacobs Jenkins, presents as its focal point the family of Richard (Derek Webster), a black adjunct professor of classics at a local college, Jean (Julia Campbell), his white “once a poet, now a nothing” wife, and their shrill, belligerent, teen-age daughter Melody (Rachae Thomas). These three had problems even before their new neighbors moved in.
The new neighbors, the Crow family, all in blackface and bizarre costumes, are a troupe of stereotypical minstrel performers consisting of Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), dressed like Aunt Jemima, Zip (Leith Burke) as the old-time minstrel character Zip Coon, Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), Jim (James Edward Shippy) representing Jim Crow, and Topsy (Daniele Watts), wearing an oversized wig that looks like it’s made of steel wool. These five performers call their show “Coonapalooza” and proudly reprise the comic routines of the 19th and early 20th century minstrels. (In actual fact, minstrel show acts continued into the 1950s and only disappeared in the late 1960s.) But this family performs with a vengeance and their presentations are not innocent, but vicious and cruel.
For example, Mammy, in a silent tribute to Butterfly McQueen (“I don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies”), delivers a pair of twins to a white lady who promptly abandons them, leaving them dangling from Mammy’s grotesquely oversized but presumably milk-laden breasts.
In another cameo, Sambo, wielding a penis as long as a garden hose, inserts the end of it into a topless, hollowed-out watermelon, then rides the watermelon to orgasm. Then, as if that weren’t gross enough, he lifts the watermelon to his lips and drinks the contents.
Meanwhile, Richard, the upwardly mobile black man next door is having a complete meltdown, not only because these theater folk have moved in, but also because his rebellious daughter has made friends with Jim and, even worse, his lonely wife has made friends with Zip.
“Neighbors” is a complex exaggeration of certain relationships: black vs. white, black vs. black, as well as an unsubtle exposition of the inherent racism still present in America today. As playwright Jacobs Jenkins has noted in the playbill, this play is set in “a distorted present.” What guilt you take away from it is up to you.
“Neighbors” will continue at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Oct. 24. Call (323) 960-7774 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.