Home > Uncategorized > ‘Neighbors’ an angry play intended to stir white guilt

‘Neighbors’ an angry play intended to stir white guilt

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Cynthia Citron

By Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — Neighbors, a play now having its west coast premiere at The Matrix Theatre, is an angry, nasty,  hateful, and thoroughly mean-spirited take on the “black experience” in America.  Its goal, I would presume, is to make its audience squirm and feel guilty.  Squirm, yes.  Guilty, not so much.

Neighbors, written by New York playwright Branden Jacobs Jenkins, presents as its focal point the family of Richard (Derek Webster), a black adjunct professor of Classics at a local college, Jean (Julia Campbell), his white “once a poet, now a nothing” wife, and their shrill, belligerent, teen-age daughter Melody (Rachae Thomas).  These three had problems even before their new neighbors moved in.

The new neighbors, the Crow family, all in blackface and bizarre costumes, are a troupe of stereotypical minstrel performers consisting of Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), dressed like Aunt Jemima, Zip (Leith Burke) as the old-time minstrel character Zip Coon, Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), Jim (James Edward Shippy) representing Jim Crow, and Topsy (Daniele Watts), wearing an oversized wig that looks like it’s made of steel wool. 

These five performers call their show “Coonapalooza” and proudly reprise the comic routines of the 19th  and early 20th century minstrels.  (In actual fact, minstrel show acts continued into the 1950s and only disappeared in the late 1960s.)  But this family performs with a vengeance and their presentations are not innocent, but vicious and cruel.

For example, Mammy, in a silent tribute to Butterfly McQueen (“I don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies”), delivers a pair of twins to a white lady who promptly abandons them, leaving them dangling from Mammy’s grotesquely oversized but presumably milk-laden breasts. 

In another cameo, Sambo, wielding a penis as long as a garden hose, inserts the end of it into a topless, hollowed-out watermelon, then rides the watermelon to orgasm.  Then, as if that weren’t gross enough, he lifts the watermelon to his lips and drinks the contents.

Meanwhile, Richard, the upwardly mobile black next door is having a complete meltdown, not only because these theater folk have moved in, but also because his rebellious daughter has made friends with Jim and, even worse, his lonely wife has made friends with Zip.

Neighbors is a complex exaggeration of certain relationships: black vs. white, black vs. black, as well as an unsubtle exposition of the inherent racism still present in America today.  As playwright  Jacobs Jenkins has noted in the playbill, this play is set in “a distorted present.”  What guilt you take away from it is up to you.

Neighbors will continue at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 through October 24th.  Call (323) 960-7774 for tickets.

Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

  1. Baadja
    October 12, 2010 at 12:15 am

    What ever you may feel about this play, racial TRUTH black or white will always be hard to take and whether is 1950 or 1960 racism is alive and Well in this here United States of America. If you can’t see past the black face, the antics and anything else your mind refuses to see then there is nothing I can say or do to make you see. This play is not to make you feel guilty unless you are for whatever reason. Go rent Bamboozled or Jolson maybe that will make you feel guilt if that is what your looking to take from this play.

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