Theater review: ‘Neighbors’ at the Matrix Theatre
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Just when you thought beer summits were so 2009, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ bracing satire “Neighbors,” now at the Matrix Theatre, turns up to mess with your lazy liberal self.
Call it Stepford meets Stepin Fetchit: Richard (Derek Webster), an African American adjunct classics professor, is playing by all the rules. He lives a tidy life in a bland suburb with his pretty white wife (Julia Campbell) and daughter, Melody (Rachae Thomas). Politely gunning for a full-time position at the local university, Richard’s aspirational focus is shattered by his new neighbors, the Crows, a tumble of racist tropes in (literal) black-face: kerchief-headed Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), top-hatted Zip Coon (Leith Burke), nappy-headed Topsy (Daniele Watts) and thuggish Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden). When Melody starts hanging out with the Crows’ shy, youngest son, Jim (James Edward Shippy), Richard’s fantasy of thriving in a post-racial universe starts to collapse.
Part deconstructed minstrel show, part family drama and a sharp retelling of Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” Jacobs-Jenkins’ tragic farce has more energy and ideas than half a dozen anodyne “issue” plays that pass for contemporary drama on L.A. stages. Director Nataki Garrett achieves an impressive unity of tone in a show that veers from pantomime to dance numbers to realism. The cast punches up the stylized elements without ever losing its humanity: Burke’s Zip finds an eerie intimacy with Campbell’s frazzled housewife, while Baadja-Lyne makes sampling her own breast milk or corralling her unruly children all part of a day’s work.
Ayana Cahrr’s vivid choreography showcases the talented Watts, whose every disturbing gesture evokes an obscene intersection of racism and sexuality, while Naila Aladin Sanders’ costumes spin the old stereotypes with tremendous wit: note Zip’s watermelon-patterned cravat, or Sambo’s enormous fake genitalia. Jacob-Jenkins knows that rage plays best as savage humor, and he takes us to excruciatingly awkward places -- and then leaves us to fend for ourselves.
The play’s narrative chases its own tail, but maybe that’s in the nature of the subject. Race is a mirage; the closer you try to get to it, the more elusive truth becomes. Messy, bold, desperately funny and deeply felt: “Neighbors” is worth getting to know.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Neighbors”: The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. $25. Contact: (323) 960-7774 or www.plays411.com/neighbors. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.