*It would be safe to say the play, ‘Neighbors,’ featuring several black actors in blackface, is unlike anything seen on an L.A. stage in recent memory.
Provocative doesn’t even begin to describe this satirical production, currently enjoying an extended run at the Matrix Theatre in W. Hollywood.
Writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and director Nataki Garrett present a fascinating, innovative, in-your-face reality check that intentionally presents controversial material that is uneasy to digest. Audience members are visibly uncomfortable, shifting back in forth in their seats, ultimately forced to confront the truth and their own stereotypic hang-ups.
Although the N-word is batted around and there are racism, sexism and gender-ism influences, the story is simple enough, with its complicated overtones.
Here’s the deal. Just like your family, you can’t pick your neighbors.
When a family of black minstrel performers named The Crows moves next door to Richard Patterson (Derek Webster), a black, conservative and successful academic, tensions rise and fundamental differences surface.
Patterson, who is married to a white woman (Julia Campbell) and has a rebellious teenage daughter named Melody (Rachae Thomas), sees his new neighbors as the antithesis of who he has become since moving to the suburbs.
The family next door includes Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), who is plus-size with huge, floppy breasts and a kerchief on her head; Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), who acts like a brute; Jim (James Edward Shippy), who is shy; Topsy (Daniele Watts), who is nappy-headed and Zip (Leith Burke), who wears a top hat. They don’t want any trouble. All they want to do, so they say, is practice their vaudevillian craft.
But when Zip becomes friends with Patterson’s fragile wife and his daughter, Melody, takes up with the family’s young son Jim, the strain between the ‘Neighbors’ takes an ugly turn.
There are some fine and genuinely impressive performances in “Neighbors.” Several cast members stand out, although what makes the production work is the collective effort on stage.
Garrett’s focused staging is original and avant garde. There’s traditional direction, mixed with burlesque-like intermissions. That, coupled with an effective set, a remarkable and stimulating script, able lighting, vibrant costumes and solid performances makes ‘Neighbors’ a stylized success.
“Neighbors” is written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Nataki Garrett. It stars Baadja-Lyne, Keith Arthur Bolden, Leith Burke, Julia Campbell, James Edward Shippy, Rachae Thomas, Daniele Watts and Derek Webster. The show, produced by Joseph Stern, is presented by The Matrix Theatre Company.
“Neighbors,” The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. Thur. through Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 7. $25. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
On the Donloe Scale, D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (Outstanding) and E (excellent), “Neighbors” gets an E (Excellent).