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Provocative ‘Neighbors’ question racial stereotypes

Jules Becker

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Robert Frost are on the same page when it comes to “good fences.”

Frost sees walling people out as unnatural, and so does the 20-something African American playwright in his envelope-pushing 2010 drama “Neighbors.”

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play may seem like a funky shock effort to some seasoned theatergoers. Still, Company One’s laudably eye-catching Boston premiere proves that Jacobs-Jenkins is a writer to be watched and his provocative effort has a lot to say about love, hate, bigotry and human understanding.

Set in what the author calls “a distorted present,” “Neighbors” finds the noisy, in-your-face Crow family moving in next door to the fairly restrained bi-racial Pattersons. Richard Patterson, an African American university professor who avoids making waves, likes to think that his white wife Jean, daughter Melody and he have been successfully assimilating.

The Crows, the title newcomers, change all that. The new neighbors (and the actors who play them) are blacks in blackface. All of the five Crows take their names from stereotypical figures that were firmly established from 1830 to 1890 in minstrel shows where the performers were whites in blackface and white audiences latched on to stereotypes of blacks as if they were reality.

Jacobs-Jenkins clearly means to have the directness and political incorrectness of the Crows confront all theatergoers — white and black — with issues of stereotyping and class.

At the same time, fictional Richard’s discomfort escalates as he struggles with an internal battle between assimilating and facing up to the challenges of his roots and identity that the Crows evoke in person and in their minstrelsy. One moment, he must face the possibility that Jean is significantly attracted to Beau Brummel-like Zip Coon, whose character made fun of free blacks in the age of minstrelsy.

At another moment, Melody and Jim Crow sense that there is real chemistry between them. Ironically, Richard is filling in for a fellow professor who has been teaching the Euripides drama “Iphigenia at Taurus.” In the classic play, Greek king Agamemnon prepares to sacrifice his title daughter to appease the gods. Will Richard have to sacrifice his daughter in an analogous pursuit of peace of mind and tranquility?

By the time the play ends, audience members should be questioning their own sacrifices and engaging in soul-searching that is likely to continue long after they have left the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).

Theatergoers familiar with the 1986 George C. Wolfe play “The Colored Museum” will probably call to mind this earlier work’s satiric playlets — especially “The Last Mama on the Couch Play.”

The politically incorrect target here is the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which the focal black family seeks out middle class stability with the purchase of their own home. Wolfe means to have theatergoers question that stability, especially as that family will be surrounded by bigots. This kind of self-questioning also affects a businessman — in another playlet — who once listened to Sly Stone music and adopted a radical sensibility about life.

Does Jacobs-Jenkins take these kinds of artistic risks in “Neighbors?” The answer is a mix. There is a powerfully uncomfortable scene in the later going that has the Crows staring at BCA theatergoers so unrelievedly that each audience is likely to experience a crisis of conscience about personal assumptions, attitudes and beliefs.

A scene connecting a watermelon to sexually suggestive stage action needs more edge and darkness. Also, more subtlety is needed when analogies are made between Richard’s and Agamemnon’s families. Theatergoers familiar with the Wolfe play may find that “Neighbors” is not quite in the same league as satire.

Newcomers to shock theater and this kind of envelope-pushing should find Jacobs-Jenkins’ effort largely satisfying. Director Summer L.Williams sharply paces the strongest moments — particularly the Crows’ stare down with the audience on the one hand and the growing understanding between Melody and Jim on the other. She needs to bring the same tightness to the exchanges between Richard and his wife and disagreements between some of the Crows themselves.

The Crows’ minstrelsy-evoking Coonapalooza performance within the play is telling and generally arresting.

In a similar vein, Williams succeeds with some cast members and not so much with others. Best are Lori Tishfield, affecting and vulnerable as Melody, and Tory Bullock, increasingly plucky and undaunted as Jim. Japonica Brown makes the most of Topsy Crow’s emotionally riveting monologue.

Johnny Lee Davenport, a consistently galvanic actor, does well with Richard’s self-questioning but needs more understatement in arguments between Melody’s parents. Christine Power plays Jean at such a high pitch from the start that she misses her character’s gradual transformation with regard to Zip and the Crow family. Equiano Mosieri has the right style and attitude as Zip. Valerie Stephens is properly tenacious as Mammy Crow, and Jesse Tolbert has force as Sambo Crow.

The design team provides good complement to the play’s soul-searching.

Benjamin Williams’ nuanced lighting enhances the play’s vivid family contrast. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set design captures both the overlapping and diverging concerns of the Crows and the Pattersons.

“Neighbors” is shaking up the sometimes overly tranquil Hub theater scene, and that is all to the good. Company One has made an important commitment this season to African American fare with strong messages. Look for gifted local director David Wheeler to helm the troupe’s Boston premiere of  “The Book of Grace,” a new Suzan-Lori Parks work also expected to confront difficult issues.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play may not quite rise to the caliber of  Parks’ “Topdog/ Underdog” or Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” but  Hub audiences should check out its timely observations and Company One’s spirited stagecraft.