Los Angeles Theater Review: NEIGHBORS (Matrix)

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by Tony Frankel on September 3, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins wants you to think about what you think about race in America. His agitprop play, Neighbors, is intentionally provocative, knowingly provocative, and (wisely so) humorously provocative. His intention is to stir up the debate regarding race in America (specifically black versus white). His setting is a suburban neighborhood where a mixed couple with a daughter find themselves changed and challenged by The Crows, a black family in black-face who move in next door. When you think about the state of race after you see this play–and you will think about it–you will undoubtedly applaud Jacobs-Jenkins’ commendable inclusion of all points of view: how we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we truly are.

It’s a complicated issue and, eventually, as successful as Jacobs-Jenkins is at poking a twig into the hornet’s nest of our consciousness, he refuses to create a fully realized resolution to his story. Is he telling us that he himself doesn’t believe in a post-racist America? Or is he saying that a fully inclusive society is possible, but he has no idea what such a thing would look like? There are indelible images associated with race–Mammy, Stepin Fetchit–that we use to prejudge one another, but are we ever really able to look past those emblazoned memories which fuel our prejudices and actions? Perhaps it is enough that we are left to our own devices to invent what we think that utopian society would look like. Perhaps, in the end, we are merely supposed to study and interpret human behavior, and realize that one ism will quickly be replaced by another.

In the end, Neighbors, subtitled “A Play with Cartoons,” is one of the most intriguing pieces of theater to arrive on the scene since Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner tackled AIDS. Jacobs-Jenkins uses the stage in a classic sense by taking a black box and using it as a mirror for us to inspect an issue that should be talked about; one that is so complicated and uncomfortable that we would rather relegate the emotions surrounding the issue (in this case, race) to some comfy little corner of our soul, as if that makes the issue dormant.

As thrilling as Neighbors is, it does become belabored by length (clocking in at over three hours) and unnecessary obviousness. Aside from a charming relationship between the daughter and her new boyfriend from next-door, the play eschews subtlety by having members of the Crow family act out their individual stereotypes between scenes. One wishes that these skits, a send-up of minstrelsy, were tauter and funnier. Director Nataki Garrett accomplished wonders with her performers and executed some fine blocking; all she needs to do is pick up some slack.

The play gets away with obvious references to social consciousness-raising theatre (one of the characters pontificates to his students about Greek tragedy), but the playwright is so intent on belaboring his issues that he comes dangerously close to disengaging the audience, especially by way of a strange avant-garde device in place of a final scene. This device, which has characters staring at us for an indeterminate length of time,  is such an obvious attempt to make sure that we leave the theater thinking, that it diffuses the bomb that should have gone off.

Again, this makes me wonder if Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins realized that there was no way to resolve his superb story. This final, awful, messy moment keeps this endeavor from being a theatrical epiphany, and it robs the audience of that stunning universal devastation which occurs when we are confronted by the almost inconceivable phenomenon of the human condition. (It also inspired Garrett to oddly rob half her cast of its curtain call.) The amazing playwriting has us pondering race relations already. The message has been delivered – we don’t need it hammered home. But I’ll take a brilliant mess over middling mediocrity any day.

What you will get, besides one of the most promising new playwrights of this generation, is a cast that revives all the promise that Los Angeles theater offers. A city with some of the world’s greatest talent is regenerated when that talent is given a startlingly original and insightful play like Neighbors.

See this play to be inspired and, hopefully, dislodged from complacency. If you do not support theater such as this–that which allows the steam of society’s pressure cooker to escape–we may soon return to riots, guns and desperation. It’s OK not to know what to do about this thorny issue, but talk about it you must. Remember that silence is the voice of complicity.

photos by I.C. Rapoport

The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on October 24, 2010 EXTENDED to November 7, 2010
for tickets, call 323.960.7774 or visit Plays411
for more info, visit Matrix Theatre

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