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)
Performances through February 5 by Company One (www.CompanyOne.org) at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
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.