Monday, September 6, 2010

Neighbors by Branden Jacobs – Jenkins

By Joe Straw 

She said it was provocative. “People just got up and left, scurrying for the exits and one person, not being able to hold her dinner, was seen vomiting in the aisles before making it to the outside lavatory.” * 

Some screamed at the appearance of naked actors on the stage. It was degrading, demoralizing, and raucous art. There was a penis boldly extending where no penis should go. And, he did what with the end of his trumpet?  And she put out the fire with what part of her anatomy?  How could they go this far?  Where is the humanity in all of this?

No one said art had to be pretty.

Then again, some laughed, albeit a somewhat uncomfortable, stifled laugh.

Still, others roared.

Neighbors, written by Branden Jacobs – Jenkins, at the Matrix Theatre Company, directed by Nataki Garrett, and produced by Joe Stern, presents a peculiar and fascinating piece of theatre about neighbors.

How can two families, neighbors, be so far apart in their approach to life and yet be so similar in wanting to have a joyous experience while they are here?

As the play goes, the Pattersons are a middle class inter-racial family. There’s Richard (Derek Webster) an African American professor searching for tenure, Jean (Julia Campbell) a poet, but now a lost stay at home mom, and their teenaged daughter, Melody (Rachael Thomas).  They live a middle class suburban lifestyle, with middleclass problems, and dealing with an adventuresome almost out of control teenager.  Nothing serious for a fifteen year old, just smoking, drinking, skipping school, and staying out till all hours of the night.

But things are about to change in their lives when a group of minstrel performers move in next door.

And so they come in the middle of the night: Mammy (Baadja-Lyne), Zip (Leith Burke), Sambo (Keith Arthur Bolden), Topsy (Daniele Watts) and Jim (James Edward Shippy).  (Historically these names were created by white minstrel performers, given to their characters, and portrayed these characters as lazy, ignorant, loud and musical.)

This particular family does not lose sight of the stereotypical beings they portray; in fact they accentuate the characters and stay in character throughout the show.

But the difference is the Crows are African American, and their maniere d’entree into the neighborhood are a source of speculation for Richard Patterson who seethes at the thought of clowns moving in next door. His wife Jean does not understand his behavior and this eventually creates a conflict too deep to repair.

The Crows are the family of the recently deceased Jim Crow. (A historical name referring to the “whites only” Jim Crow laws.)  In fact it was his death and the insurance money that got them the down payment on the house.

Although they are neighbors they find themselves in similar situations, their lives will become interwoven and eventually familial conflict will destroy the fabric of their once thought of perfect lives. 

Melody finds the young Jim Crow adorable and likewise Jim Crow finds Melody a sight to behold.  

Zip finds Jean adorable but Jean is confused by the makeup of his character and the makeup on his face. It’s not enough Jean is repelled by Zip in his conquest of neighborly love, but in her playfulness Jean sticks Zip with another label, gay.  Zip is absolutely crushed.

And no one finds Richard adorable, including his own family.

Meanwhile the Crows have found a theatre in town to showcase their talents.  They practice and throughout the play they perform their act in parts.  It is these acts that are so disturbing.  Whether it is done to enlighten the public is not entirely clear.

The Crows take their performances very seriously.  Sambo believes he can step into the shoes of his father, Jim, knowing the show inside and out.  But, Mammy doesn’t think he’s got the chops to fill his Daddy’s shoes.  That belongs to his namesake, Jim Crow, Jr. 

But Jim, Jr., doesn’t want any part of the show. He thinks the time for minstrel shows has passed and this racial stereotypical performance is nonsense. But, Mammy insists they were made to do this and slaps some heavy sense into  Jr., beating him senseless.

And then something wonderful and supernatural happens and the family becomes this cohesive unit.  It is mythical, spiritual, and gives the family the raison d’etre.  

As cohesive as they may be Topsy seems to be an independent member of the family and eventually wants to strike out with a new version of the minstrel show that doesn’t really work.   It is a misdirected turn into this type of performance if what they do is to educate.

This is a fantastic cast.  Burke as Zip is incredible and gives a heartfelt performance.  He is a consummate entertainer that breaks at the word of one more label. This is a moment to remember.

Shippy as Jim creates a character that is so white bread you forget he’s African American until the moment he steps into Jim Crow’s shoes.  This is an outstanding moment and one not to forget.

Thomas as Melody was very exquisite, worldly, and childlike all rolled up into one adorable bundle. This is a fascinating portrayal of a bewildered young woman trying to find her way.

Watts as Topsy is very engaging character study.  The physical makeup of her character is part of her wonderful execution of dancing and singing.   Taking the role seriously she invites change to the families way of doing things but perhaps losing sight of their real purpose. 

Baadja-Lyne as Mammy is a loving mother and extreme taskmaster. Her job, to keep her family together through trying times, is exciting and dramatic.  She is wonderfully funny and a gift.

Bolden as Sambo is an interesting character study.  He is a man that is stuck in the middle position, between a rock and a hard place.  Try as he might he doesn’t have the chops but that doesn’t stop him from trying to fill his Daddy’s shoes. 

Campbell as Jean has lost her way and can’t find the path into the clearing.  She is confused as to why she fell in love with a man she despises.  Filled with a right-eyed twitching anxiety, she tries to find a way out.  She is a woman confused to the point to exasperation. This is a very nice performance.

Webster as Richard is a dying man, struggling to revive his morbid bound career, and family, but in this life his career comes first destroying his life in the process.  He is a train ready to jump the tracks.  His objective is not entirely clear but gives a nice performance nevertheless.

Brandon  Jacobs - Jenkins has written a play that will have you thinking for months or years.  It is devilishly dramatic, filled with comedy and angst.  Slapstick aside it has some very important moments that are riveting and heartfelt.  Forget the makeup, see beyond the mask, and let humans be themselves.  Take your preconceived perceptions and throw them out along with your prejudices of humankind.  

Also, Jacobs – Jenkins has written an ending that is quite remarkable and stunning in it’s purpose. Look into their eyes, take a good look, and explore what you’ve been missing. This is well worth the price of admission.

Nataki Garrett, the director, is a master at what she does.  She has presented us with beautiful moments in a remarkable play.  These are the moments to remember and to cherish.  It is a peculiar type of theatrical art that is fantastic and richly engrossing and one that you will remember.  

Like the picket fence separating the neighbors, we are a country struggling with the divisions from those insist on a “whites only” America.  Let’s open the gates and move forward, full steam ahead. 

* - possibly an overactive imagination or a myth.

Performances: August 28 - October 24
Thursdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 19, 26 (previews); Sept. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; Oct. 7, 14, 21
Frdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 20, 27 (previews); Sept. 3, 10, 17, 24; Oct. 1, 8, 15, 22
Saturdays at 7:30 pm: Aug. 21 (preview), 28 (Opening); Sept. 4, 11, 18, 25; Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23
Sundays at 2:30 pm: Aug. 22 (preview), 29; Sept. 5, 12, 19, 26; Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24

The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

323-960-7774 or


  1. We like our art a little gritty. This review makes me want to see this play!

  2. Thank you Sarah! A little grit never hurt anyone.

    Joe Straw