Some time back, Chris Rock stepped on stage at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. He didn’t say so much as “Good evening, Twin Cities, how you doin’?”, “Nice to be here” or anything of the sort. He went straight to the mic and the first words out of his mouth were, “Does every brotha in Minnesota have a White woman? Do they just give them away with your driver’s license?”
Whereupon the whole place erupted in howling laughter and a cataract of rapturous applause as pockets of Black women leapt to their feet and White women cringed beside their dates, trying to shrink into their seats. Sure enough, this is the place to come get you a blonde, brunette or redhead, most especially if you’re a leading professional — and really most especially if you’re an arts professional — with status as a proponent of social progress or Black culture (go figure).
So, it’s an entirely appropriate locale for Mixed Blood Theatre’s area premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors, a satire at the center of which are a social-climbing college instructor, his White wife and their daughter whose neighbors — get it? clever title — are about as sho’ nuff cullud a family as you’re apt to come by.
Not a half-bad premise, having this snob enjoying his life of politically correct privilege confronted by some real-life Blacks who just moved in next door. That, however, is all the production has going for it. That and the sole saving grace of some of the acting.
Jacobs-Jenkins is one of these pretentious pedestrians who wanted to have a play to his credit. He must’ve sat down and said, “Well, I don’t have any actual playwriting ability. So, I’ll make — ta da! — a social statement.”
His idea of a statement was to caricaturize the next-door neighbors as the Crow family, a surreal ensemble of Mammy, Sambo, Topsy, Zip and Jim who, except for Jim, rambunctiously cavort through their day in minstrel grease paint and clownish costumes — and not only as traveling show performers now on hiatus. They do this in everyday life. As their real selves.
That’s the satire part. For the rest, Professor Richard Patterson and family are regular people. With Patterson looking aghast down his nose at the Crows, Jean Patterson graciously extends herself and their histrionics-prone daughter Melody curiously gets to know them.
It might’ve worked but for the fact that the author hasn’t the first clue how to construct characters and instead substitutes types, minimally sketched ones at that. Patterson is a cliché, the brightly shining Black guy making it in the White world whose contempt for the — let’s use the word “nigros” — next door is his fatal Achilles’ heel. Oh, he also gets a bit inexplicably ghetto at his worst moment of crisis.
Jean is that typical colorblind liberal who doesn’t understand what race has to do with anything. Until she and her husband get into it in a farfetched fight about just how Black and White their marriage is.
Melody’s interchangeable with any other mouthy, teenage girl who hates her overprotective father as a coming-of-age rite.
The Crows, in short, are a bunch of assorted jigaboos but for the youngest, Jim, a shy kid who could’ve been raised in the Huxtable household. Add to all of this a go-nowhere ending — there isn’t any climax; the script just eventually runs out of pages — and you have bonafide bucket of slop that makes you truly appreciate the expression, “I could’ve had a V-8.”
Director Nataki Garrett keeps a brisk pace, but God knows what she’s talking about in the playbill notes, extolling, “The challenges of images and the burden of representation [in Neighbors] ripped through me and immediately challenged my semi-elitist notions of how far we’ve come. The play taps into the hushed conversations Black families have been having in kitchens and around dining room tables for generations.”
Hogwash. The script is a stilted, pointless exercise in tedium and shock value that would be well-served by a liberal application of lighter fluid and the deft stroke of a match.
The production owes its few moments worth sitting through to the enjoyable energy of cast members Tatiana Williams, Shawn Hamilton, Chris Hampton, Thomas W. Jones II and Brittany Bradford. Williams (Topsy) has wonderful stage presence that does a great deal with very little; as ironically enough, despite having the least distinct role she’s the most fascinating to watch.
Hamilton (Mammy) had to step in for ailing Mixed Blood veteran Warren C. Bowles at the last minute.
You’d never know it, but he was handed the part with a week to go off book, rehearse and get with it. This he did, turning in a performance highlighted by pinpoint timing and fine comic delivery.
Chris Hampton is endearing as Jim, and Jones is smooth as silk in the role of Zip. Brittany Bradford engages, brightly animated as Melody. Rendering serviceable turns are Bruce A. Young (Prof. Patterson), Sarah Agnew (Jean) and Christian R. Gibbs (Sambo).
The scuttlebutt in knowledgeable circles around town is about whether Neighbors does a disservice to African Americans by trotting out negative, laughing- stock images. Quite honestly, it does no such thing: Anyone who hasn’t already seen these images hasn’t been paying attention. The disservice it does is to theater, period, pawning itself off as thought-provoking, stage-worthy fare when it’s really a hackneyed, half-baked excuse for a play.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors runs through October 9 at Mixed Blood’s historic firehouse theater on the West Bank. For more information, see the Spot listings on page #.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.