Through Sat 7/29
Last year, Dobama Theatre’s production of Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon was selected as Best Non-musical Production by the Cleveland Critics Circle. The play was a flash back to the mid-1800s, and mirrored the bigotry, violence, racial profiling, work and housing discrimination, xenophobia and prejudice rampant in the political, business and social landscape of the United States, which has carried over into today’s America.
Neighbors, also penned by Jacobs-Jenkins, is now on stage at convergence-continuum. As is the case with the multi-award winning Princeton grad and African-American author’s works, Neighbors, Jacobs-Jenkins’ first play, probes the complicated issue of race, family, class and self-identity. It also uses a historical perspective, the Coon play, as a device to satirize and comment on modern culture. And, as is his custom, Jacobs-Jenkins uses visual and verbal images, such as sex acts and explicit sexual language, to provoke the audience. He is an advocate of shocking and creating unsettling feelings to enhance his story telling.
Richard (Prophet D. Seay), who is black, and his white wife, Jean (Kim Woodward), along with their angst-filled biracial teenage daughter, Melody (Shannon Ashley Sharkey), have just moved from California to an unnamed city for Richard to be an adjunct professor at the local college. They have rented a house in an area which appears to be populated by conservative whites.
Richard has attempted to separate himself from black stereotypes by going to a prestigious college, majoring in the classics and marrying a white woman. He shows animosity for members of his fellow race, and refers to them as “niggers.”
Much to the consternation of Richard, a black family has moved into the house next door. The new residents have a long history of performing in Coon shows and are always in costume and makeup.
Coon show entertainers were blacks who, instead of whites in blackface, as in minstrel shows, were made up in blackface and made fun of themselves in racially charged skits complete with dancing, singing, watermelon- and chicken-eating, references to their males’ enormous penis sizes and females’ large breasts, portraying Negroes as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous and musical.
As the tale unfolds, Richard displays anxiety about his teaching abilities, Jean starts to question why she married Richard and turns to Zip Coon (A. Harris Brown), the patriarch of the Crows, and Melody develops a relationship with Jim (Anthony X), a nephew of the next-door neighbors, who doesn’t fit in with his relatives. Conflict, angst and chaos develop, leading to an unsettling ending.
Interludes — sidebars showing Coon production segments — are interspersed into the story line by the family members including Jeannine Gaskin (Mammy), Joshua McElroy (Sambo) and Kennetha Martin (Topsy). Some are gross, others edifying.
Neighbors is not as well-written as its sister play, An Octoroon. The plot does not flow as clearly and the Coon Show interludes are difficult to perform by those not well-versed in the genre. The script also needs drastic cutting.
Director Terrence Spivey and his cast put out full effort, but the overall effect is not positive.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Neighbors is a disturbing play with a well-intentioned message, but, as is often the case with first plays by an author, it lacks a strong center, is too long and often shocks more than presents awareness reactions. It is definitely not a play that will be appreciated by everyone.
Neighbors runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through Sat 7/29. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to convergence-continuum.org.
[Written by Roy Berko, Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]