Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Neighbors, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Neighbors, by Brooklyn playwright Jacobs-Jenkins, uses theatrical language to explore race issues in contemporary America (and, by extension, Britain). A mixed-race couple, the Pattersons, move into a suburban neighbourhood so he (Richard) can start climbing the academic ladder as a lecturer (on tragedy, it would seem) at a nearby university. Occupying another stage are their neighbours, the Crows, a troupe of negro entertainers disturbingly got up in the blackface minstrelsy look popular a hundred years ago (I still have vague memories of the Black and White Minstrel show on British TV). Through the interaction of these two families we get a look at identity politics (it is Richard who uses the 'n' word of his neighbours and distrusts them viscerally), sexual attractions and cultural taboos. The vaudeville show put on by the Crows plays up to all the negro stereotypes of another age (for example, Big Mammy lactating two white babies enacts ideas of black fecundity). In my case it also agitated long-dormant mental furniture from the novels of Enid Blyton, the Tom and Jerry cartoons (the unseen black housemaid) and beyond. Performances were powerful throughout: the scenes between Jean Patterson (Clare Calbraith) and Zip Coon (Craig Stein) particularly stuck in the mind for their unlayering of Jean's anxieties.

As a play, Neighbors tried everything, placing domestic turmoil (fracturing marriage, troubled daughter) alongside grand historical issues, and throwing in some Brechtian meta-theatre as well (applauding the Crows, we become the audience the minstrels were exploited by). There wasn't space for it all to be worked out: the strand on classical tragedy didn't seem to develop, and the relationship between the daughter and son of the two families didn't have any point to get to after it ignited Patterson's fury. The strange songs and routines of the Crows burned themselves into the mind. I had no idea what minstrel shows actually consisted off - a chapter of American theatrical history not much dwelt upon, I imagine. The ending was powerfully disconcerting. It was rather remarkable to read in the programme that there was debate over whether to go ahead with a production of this work, given its 'outrageousness'. Inventive theatricality, intelligent text and a work that leaves us feeling uneasy is surely just what the contemporary stage needs. A co-production of the Nuffield and High Tide Theatre. Good to see a decent-sized and appreciative house at the Nuffield for this.