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Provocative “Neighbors” is a Sizzling Theatrical Firebomb

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Julia Campbell and Leith Burke in 'Neighbors.' | Photo: I.C. Rapoport


Julia Campbell and Leith Burke in 'Neighbors.' | Photo: I.C. Rapoport
There’s a line in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play, Neighbors, where one of the main characters says: “Race is an illusion! If you ignore it, it will go away!” The character speaking would like to make that statement true through force of sheer will, but the play thwarts him at every turn, insisting that racial stereotypes are alive and well, and the idea of a post-racial world is still quite distant. In other words, this isn’t a particularly optimistic play, but what it lacks in reassurance in makes up for in assured audacity.

This world premiere at the Matrix Theatre will likely be one of the most controversial shows of the year. Its depiction of African-American stereotypes is deliberately over-the-top and sometimes repulsive, and some audience members may not want to endure watching them, regardless of the point behind presenting them. However, those willing to engage with this provocative piece are rewarded with a production that is excellent on every level, a play that is moving and funny and energetic and uncomfortable in the best way—the kind of play that makes you want to talk about it in the lobby for an hour afterward and think about it for days after that. It’s a theatrical firebomb, a genuine event.

Richard (Derek Webster) and Jean (Julia Campbell) are a married couple living in high-end suburbia. They send their daughter Melody (Rachae Thomas) to a private school. Richard, who is currently teaching Greek drama to college students, is gunning for tenure. The only difficulty they’ve had to deal with is the racial issue of how society looks at their marriage—Richard is black, Jean is white—but at the play’s beginning they seem reasonably content. Then one morning the Crow family moves in next door, a family of African Americans in blackface who perform minstrel shows for a living. Richard is instantly suspicious and contemptuous of his new neighbors, but Melody is interested in young, polite Jim (James Edward Shippy) and Jean finds sympathy and possible friendship with the uncle, Zip (Leith Burke). Before long, questions of race and personal identity are tearing the supposedly content family apart.

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Webster is impressive, a commanding stage presence inhabiting his role to such a deep extent that you can almost read Richard’s mind from moment to moment as he rages and implodes. Campbell is superb, indelible as a woman who suddenly realizes she’s been metaphorically sleepwalking through a minefield, and that it’s not the same minefield her husband is in. Her monologue where a conversation with Zip gradually becomes a manic rant of desperation is one of the highlights of the show, and her performance overall is a tour de force of self-doubt and wanting to connect. Burke is masterful as Zip, a character whose motivations are cagily opaque—sometimes courtly and fey, to switch in a moment to manipulative or predatory.

Thomas is properly sarcastic and overdramatic as the teenaged Melody, but Shippy underplays Jim enough that his gradual transformation over the course of the piece isn’t as effective or apparent as it should be. Baadja-Lyne is simultaneously world-weary and imposing as Mammy, and Keith Arthur Bolden gets points for actor bravery as Sambo, who has perhaps the most “oh my God I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moment and manages to pull it off, so to speak. Finally, Daniele Watts is outstanding as Topsy, in a virtuoso performance that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, and done with such physical energy and dancing skill that it’s breathtaking.

Director Nataki Garrett takes this exceptionally tricky material and not only makes it work but makes it work brilliantly, using every tool in the theatrical arsenal. Two scenes that work extraordinarily well include a sequence where Richard is giving a lecture on “Iphigenia at Aulis” and telling his students to look at it from three angles, and three areas of the stage are lit as he speaks, connecting three angles of his present life to the Greek tragedy. The other scene is one of the minstrel sequences--the most boundary-pushing scenes in the play wherein the old African-American stereotypes are magnified to put their offensiveness under a pitiless spotlight—in which Topsy does a dance routine that connects her stereotype all the way up to present-day performers that ends in a frenzy of sexual self-abuse. J. Kent Inasy’s lighting, Naila Alladin Sanders’ costumes, John Zalewski’s sound and Ayana Cahrr’s choreography are all expert.

Jacobs-Jenkins has written a play that is heartfelt, ambitious, angry, outrageous and very funny, a play that has definite opinions but ultimately has both the white wife and the black husband equally uncertain what to do or think or say about what race means to their lives. It’s such a strong piece that it’s frustrating how unsatisfying the very ending of the show is. Up to that point, the show has been a powerhouse, strength upon strength, and then it abruptly concludes with something that feels like a cheap avant-garde gimmick from the 1960s, something that implies meaning but seems more like a playwright not having a ending that lived up to the rest of the show. Not only that, but then half of the cast doesn’t come out for a curtain call, which serves no point but to rob deserving actors of their applause. That aside, this play is one of the most intelligent and accomplished things seen in Los Angeles theater for a long while.

Neighbors
The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
Th.-Sat at 7:30 pm; Sun. 2:30 pm through Oct. 24
Tickets: $25
(323) 960-7774 or www.plays411.com/neighbors