Company One Wants You to Meet the 'Neighbors'
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Directed by Summer L. Williams, Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, Lighting Design by Benjamin Williams, Sound Design by David Wilson, Costume Design by Miranda Giurleo, Properties Design by Liz Panneton, Choreographer Larry Sousa, Production Stage Manager Joseph Thomas
CAST: The Patterson Family: Johnny Lee Davenport (Richard), Christine Power (Jean), Lori Tishfield (Melody); The Crow Family: Japonica Brown (Topsy), Tory Bullock (Jim Crow, Jr.), Jesse Tolbert (Sambo Crow), Equiano Mosieri (Zip Coon Crow), Valerie Stephens (Mammy Crow)
If you catch yourself looking around the audience to see who else is laughing at the onstage antics of the families Crow and Patterson, you'll probably notice others doing the same thing. It's not that you're not supposed to laugh during Neighbors, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' irreverent play that focuses on the struggle against racial stereotypes, but some of the humor and much of the entire script is intended to cause feelings of awkwardness and discomfort. It's theatre that makes you think and, as Company One Artistic Director Shawn LaCount says, "Like all good art it shouldn't be easy."
It couldn't have been an easy task for Director Summer L. Williams to walk the line between the humor and pathos of Neighbors, but she paints the former with a broad brush, while surgically extracting every ounce of the latter with such subtlety that you may not absorb all of it until you are driving home, or having your morning coffee the next day. While she admits that this is her personal reading of it, Williams' understanding and interpretation of Jacobs-Jenkins' intent is clear and forthright, and her direction never veers off course from the points she wants to drive home.
Part of the challenge for Williams and her cast is that, perhaps to a greater degree than usual, the audience plays a role in Neighbors, and it changes with every performance. In the story, the Crow family puts on a minstrel show called "The Crow Family Coonapalooza" and the Plaza Theatre audience is also the fictional audience that sees them perform. It makes things a little confusing at times when it feels like we should applaud their shtick as members of the fictional audience, but not as the actual audience. Aside from that, it is a very interesting duality; especially in the intimate space of the black box with everyone seated close enough to the stage to bathe in the glow of the footlights.
The tacky, uncouth Crow family of black actors, perpetually in black face makeup, moves in next door to the interracial middle class Patterson family, themselves recent arrivals to the not-so-diverse academic neighborhood. Richard is an adjunct professor at the local university and, as a black man, is concerned that the Crow family will create negative-by-association consequences for him and his family. When his stay-at-home wife Jean gets chummy with Zip Coon Crow, an apparent dandy in top hat and tails, Richard grows increasingly apoplectic. Adding insult to injury, he fears that young Jim Crow, Jr.'s influence will rub off on their insolent fifteen-year old daughter Melody. Richard doesn't know the half of it.
The juxtaposition of two families in transition highlights their similarities and overshadows their differences. The Crows are finally settling down after years on tour and the death of Jim, Sr. Mammy and Zip are reconfiguring the act and bringing Jr. out from his place in the wings as stage manager to replace his daddy. The resultant sibling rivalry with Sambo and Topsy only adds to Jr.'s discomfort at stepping into the limelight. He finds solace in a relationship with Melody, a bratty truant with a poor self-image, united by their adolescent angst.
Meanwhile, Jean's daily conversations with Zip cause her to question her own motives vis-à-vis giving up her aspirations to write poetry for marriage and motherhood, as well as whether or not she has a "thing" for black men. She tries to engage Richard in discussing their race difference, but her newfound fixation exasperates him. Yet, Jean believes that he is fixated on the Crows because they are black, until he blurts out, "This isn't about race, it's about class!"
With that revelation, Jacobs-Jenkins rips the lid off the can of worms he has been gently opening and the contents flood out. Up to this point, we have seen bits and pieces of the Crow's show, one member's act at a time, in stark contrast to Richard's academic lecture hall recitations about Greek theatre, defining tragedy as "losing what you've got." The former includes a litany of stereotypical images such as buffoonery, watermelon, dawdling like Stepin Fetchit, and a black wet nurse with humongous breasts, all of which serve to denigrate the race. Although he wears a suit and carries a briefcase, it becomes apparent that Richard's performance is also an act in which he pretends to be someone that he is not, wanting desperately to be adept at playing the white man's game and hating himself for being an Uncle Tom. But, if he is not up to their level, at least he can be "better than" the low class neighbors.
Johnny Lee Davenport is compelling as the protagonist Patterson, proudly brandishing his banner of assimilation and unabashedly expressing his hopes for the American dream, only to physically break down as he experiences the tragedy he feared. As the head of the other household, Valerie Stephens is the archetypal Mammy, earthy and maternal, but definitely in charge. Equiano Mosieri gives warmth and depth to Zip that is belied by his foppish appearance, and Tory Bullock imbues Jr. with maturity beyond his years. Jesse Tolbert as older brother Sambo and Japonica Brown as little sister Topsy offer far more than their familiar caricatures imply, especially when they perform their individual sketches in the Coonapalooza. Topsy's interpretive dance is worth the price of admission.
As the offspring of the interracial couple, Melody has a tough row to hoe and Lori Tishfield captures the girl's confusion and search for self. Christine Power portrays Jean's internal struggle primarily with a series of thoughtful expressions, but she comes to life with a manic outburst as Jean begins to decompensate. Overall, the Crow family chemistry feels more organic than that of the Pattersons, but that could be a function of all that is going on under the surface.
Augmenting the superb Crow family characterizations are Miranda Giurleo's costumes, making Mammy et al recognizable from images we've been exposed to for nearly two centuries. Julia Noulin-Merat's set bisects the stage to delineate the two households, and Benjamin Williams effectively uses lighting to define the homes and the minstrel show venue. Sound designer David Wilson provides music appropriate for the theme, including "Zip a dee doo dah" from Song of the South, and credit Larry Sousa for evocative choreography.
Neighbors indicates that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a playwright to watch and Company One is to be applauded for mounting one of the few productions of the show. It's smart, funny, shocking, discomfiting, and extremely entertaining. It seems to me that's what theatre should be.
Photo: Tory Bullock (Jim Crow, Jr.), Johnny Lee Davenport (Richard Patterson), Equiano Mosieri (Zip Coon Crow)