Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Prior to curtain you can hear a series of rap songs in which the N-word and F-word are oft repeated with no relation to the subject of the songmuch like the play that will soon assail your ears. This is followed by a piano ragtime number and James Brown's "I Feel Good," which is assumed to put the audience off balance.
As the play begins, Richard Patterson (Prophet D. Seay) has uprooted his family from California, where he taught Greek political thought. They have landed in a rental house on the suburban borders of his alma mater (somewhere in the Midwest) where is now an adjunct professor of Greek tragedy for one of his former teachers who has advanced-stage cancer.
Richard lives with his bored wife Jean (Kim Woodworth), who is a former poet, and their stereotypically angry 15-year-old daughter Melody (Shannon Ashley Sharkey) in a modest dwelling in a quiet neighborhood inhabited by other members of the college faculty and fraternity. Richard is a black ultra-conservative, Jean is a white dutiful wife longing for the days of picnics and poems, and Melody is angry at both of them, based solely on the fact that they are her parents and they dragged her from her friends in California.
Richard is suffering from hyper-tension for which he takes medication. With the pressure of the move and new job (teaching Greek tragedy is not his forte) he is very much on edge. The family's sketchy equilibrium is turned upside down with the arrival of their new neighbors, the Crows.
The Crow family are minstrel performers and they parade around in black face and costumes reminiscent of the showboat and "coon show" periods in America: Mammy Crow (Jeannine Gaskin) looking like she stepped off the set of a Civil War movie; her brother Zip Coon Crow (A. Harris Brown) with his aura of self importance in top hat and tails; Topsy Crow (Kennetha Martin), the overly giggly daughter; Sambo Crow (Joshua McElroy), who bounds onstage bare chested in a grass skirt; and Jim Crow (Anthony X), whom Mammy is grooming to take over the minstrel show part of her late husband (despite young Jim's protests). Upon seeing his new neighbors spilling out of the moving truck, Richard mutters the N-word, shocking his wife who has never heard him say it before.
At various points in the play the individual minstrel members do solo segments that are announced on the video screens. Most of these represent sexual acts or parodies of perceived black foibles that seem to have been used traditionally in reinforcing misconceptions about black people in general.
As Richard attempts to earn his daily bread lecturing about the tragedy found in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, we see his own life becoming a tragedy as well, as his wife takes tea with Zip Coon, who asks if she is attracted to her husband because he is black or if she is simply attracted to black men. Soon, Zip tries to romance her.
Melody takes a liking to Jim Crow and begins to pursue him romantically as he tries to deal with his stage fright in taking over his late father's role. Through all of this, Richard is clueless as to what is going on until one night when Melody does not come home until the early morning hours. He confronts the teenager and the black-face make-up smeared on her face and stomach, they argue, and Melody escapes, waking up Jean who confronts her husband. In short order, Richard's life comes apart around him.
It is never established if the Crows are cartoon characterizations or the figment of Richard's prejudiced and conservative imagination. There is a lot of on-stage sex, including the insertion of various items including a trumpet (Zip Coon) and a banana (Topsy Crow), sex with a watermelon that is portrayed by Sambo using a 12-foot phallus, and an extended act of fellatio between Melody and Jim.
The repeated use of "Crow Family Segments," in which the various minstrels act out tableaus from their stage show that emphasize the darker side of black culture, seems simply put in for shock value and does not advance the story. It is like every bad, derogatory joke has been resurrected for this show simply to demonstrate that they can put it on stage. The language is raw and unrelenting in its assault on the ears, as at times profanity comes at the audience like a barrage of machine gun bullets.
During one segment of the play, the video boards show photos of various black entertainers through the ages from the original "coon shows" through modern times and to today, giving the impression that little has changed over the decades, that blacks are still portrayed as the "shucking, jiving and broad smiling caricatures" of old.
While Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon did well last year at Dobama Theater this, his first dramatic effort, in effect uses a sledgehammer where a fly swatter would have better served. While director Terrence Spivey (recently named Scene Magazine's Best Director of 2017) tries his best to get the most out of his cast, the sexual side trips and overly dramatic antics that the play uses overshadow the brilliance of the salvageable scenes.
As for the acting, it is uneven at best. The quiet interludes between Jim and Melody as they discover their affection for one another and the hilarious lecture by Richard (where he reveals a "spoiler alert" to his many students who did not take the time to actually read the play he is lecturing on) are great theater, but unfortunately not nearly enough to save this work. Most of the time, it resorts to high dramatics with a lot of shouting and fast movement trying to hide the deficiencies in the script.
Unless you are a seasoned (and hardened) regular attendee of avant guarde, off-the-wall, theatre and you do not mind an onslaught of sex and profanity, you may wish to skip this show.
Raw, visual, over-bearing and outrageous but at the same time thought-provoking best describes this over-blown sex act of a play that relies on shock rather than finesse to make its point. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. It is up for you to decide.
Neighbors, in the Liminis Theater for Convergence-Continuum, 2438 Scranton Road in Cleveland's Tremont area, through July 29, 2017. Tickets and information are available by calling (216) 687-0074 or online at www.convergence-continuum.org.
The company's next offering will be the one-person show Collaborator by Yussef El Guindi that will star Hillary Wheelock, August 10 through 12, followed by Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, August 25 through September 15.