A bare-breasted Mammy shucks and jives while suckling two white baby dolls. A grass-skirted and grotesquely endowed young Sambo humps a watermelon. These are just some of the images that smack the audience in the face in Mixed Blood Theatre's bold and abrasive staging of Branden Jacob-Jenkins' "Neighbors." This raucous, visceral commentary on "post-racial" America clearly demonstrates that the edgy vision Jack Reuler launched at Mixed Blood 36 years ago remains alive and kicking.
Set in a "distorted present," "Neighbors" revolves around two families: the Pattersons and the Crows. African-American Richard Patterson, his white wife and biracial daughter are ensconced in upwardly mobile suburbia when the Crows, a family of black entertainers, move in across the street. Richard (Bruce A. Young) immediately senses danger, eyeing the Crows with a finely nuanced, bemused horror even as his wife and daughter welcome them to the neighborhood. What ensues is a layered, provocative and brazen exploration of race and its implications for a modern world.
Jacob-Jenkins, winner of the 2011 Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, demonstrates an uncanny knack for pushing comic images and suggestions right up to the edge and then letting them tumble over into vicious satire. From the exaggerated blackface makeup to the doorbell that chimes the refrain of "Dixie," the Crow family is a lively conglomeration of every itchy and uncomfortable stereotype that permeates American culture. Over the course of the play the Crows shred all the conventions of postracial harmony that the Pattersons have tried so hard to create.
Director Nataki Garrett, who previously directed "Neighbors" in 2010 for Los Angeles' Matrix Theatre Company, is aided by a solid cast in this high-energy production. Sarah Agnew gives an appealing turn as Richard's loquacious, vaguely unhappy wife, who is slowly wooed into the Crows' orbit by Zip (played with sinister charm by Thomas W. Jones II). Shawn Hamilton (who stepped in at the last minute to replace the ailing Warren Bowles) brings incisive wit and outrageous vulgarity to the role of Mammy, the impresario of the Crow family minstrel show. Tatiana Williams, as Topsy, is mesmerizing in a lightning-fast mélange of black female entertainers, while other fine performances are offered by Brittany Bradford, Christian Gibbs and Chris Hampton.
"Neighbors," which also kicks off Mixed Blood's Radical Hospitality initiative of expanded access through free admission, is no walk in the park. A few patrons left during Wednesday night's performance, an occurrence sure to be repeated. Jacob-Jenkins' play pulls no punches as it peels back painful layers of assumption and deception, stimulating a conversation that isn't new but has rarely been conducted in such a palpably raw fashion. Mixed Blood throws down the gauntlet in this one and dares its audience to step up.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.