Some patrons have walked out in the middle of the play. Others have seen it more than once.
"Neighbors," a combustible satire at Mixed Blood Theatre, has become the most controversial offering of the fall theater season. Its use of some of the most reviled racial and sexual stereotypes of blacks has divided audiences.
"I felt like I had been assaulted after seeing it," Twin Cities actor Greta Oglesby said. She would have walked out, she said, but she had promised theater founder Jack Reuler that she would stay. "The blackface wasn't the most appalling part to me," Oglesby said. "You can use it effectively. It was the over-the-top sexual deviancy."
The play, by twenty-something black writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, also has attracted repeat customers. Retired Mounds View school counselor Pat Gavan, who is white, came back to see it Wednesday.
"I think it's a good play for people to see, but you need a format to talk about it," she said. "It's a lot of images, very destructive and devastating images, thrown at you, and you might wind up feeling frustrated and angry."
Many black actors in the Twin Cities declined to audition for the show, which includes a shucking and jiving family of entertainers called the Crows that includes lecherous Zip Coon, dimwitted Sambo, scared Jim, oversexed Topsy and macho Mammy, all in ill-fitting costumes and blackface. In the play, the Crows move in next to the Pattersons, a family consisting of a black classics professor, his unemployed white wife and their petulant teenage daughter.
Fear of imagery
"The biggest blowback has come from black people, but it's a play that has to be seen to the end," said director Nataki Garrett, head of undergraduate theater at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The play asks, 'What is it that makes these images so important that we're afraid to even show them?' What the writer has done speaks right into the central membrane of the American psyche."
The producers of "Neighbors" have held regular talk-backs with the audience and a moderator at the end of performances. On Wednesday, it felt like a therapy session for the shellshocked, as people grappled with their response to the play's take on race and class, power and sexuality.
"For me, it's about scripts -- scripts that actors carry onstage but also scripts that we can't deviate from," said an Augsburg College professor of social work, Mike Schock, who is white.
"The danger, and I love Mixed Blood Theatre, is that it will introduce these images to people who have never seen them and can't cope with them," Gavan said. "That would mean that it's ultimately a hateful show rather than something to inspire you."
At Wednesday's post-play discussion, some remarked that Mammy reminded them of a blackface version of Tyler Perry's popular character Madea. And the show's use of minstrel characters recalled "The Scottsboro Boys," which had a pre-Broadway tryout at the Guthrie Theater and drew protesters in New York.
"These repulsive images are presented as normal to the people onstage," said Paris Paul, a University of Minnesota senior who is white. "The problem with the play is not the points it wants to make, but that it's not making them very well. One of the images that I leave with is of Sambo having sex with a watermelon. I'd rather have another image in my head."
"Neighbors" is the kickoff production in Mixed Blood's bold program to allow free admission to all of its plays for three years. (Patrons may opt to pay for a guaranteed seat; the free seats are on a first-come, first-served basis.)
The production made news earlier this fall for other reasons. During its Sept. 16 opening-night performance, actor Warren Bowles, who was then wearing Mammy's ill-fitting dress, head wrap and blackface, collapsed onstage. He was rushed to a hospital emergency room, then transferred to intensive care. The veteran actor has been recuperating and returned to the theater Wednesday to see the show for the first time since his medical emergency. Actor Shawn Hamilton has stepped into the role of Mammy.
"The whole Crow family, even though we might be offended by them, they're safe, and people laugh at them," Bowles said. "The playwright found a way to make us talk about it and question why we laugh."
After seeing Wednesday's production, Bowles remarked about another of the show's profanely memorable scenes that he had forgotten, partly because it's the scene in which he collapsed. It involved Mammy putting out a fire with her oversized breasts.
"Personally, I have a certain discomfort with that interlude but, as you might imagine, also a morbid fascination," Bowles said.