Neighbors, produced by Joseph Stern for Matrix Theatre Company, opens Aug. 28; plays Thur.-Sat., 7:30 pm; Sun., 2:30 pm; through Oct. 24. Tickets: $25. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Av., W. Hollywood; 323.960.7774 or plays411.com/neighbors.
Director Nataki Garrett doesn’t refrain from eating watermelon because she wants to avoid perpetuating a bigoted African American stereotype. She stays away because it makes her mouth itch.
“As a little girl I remember my grandmother wouldn’t eat it in public,” she recalls. “I thought, it’s a fruit, why wouldn’t you? I know now she was dealing with a stereotype and how much power it had over people. You don’t want others to relate you to that.”
Certainly the melon’s racist Jim Crow connotations run deep. For a “post racial” Obama-era black intellectual, distancing oneself from anything or anyone that might give white people a reason to associate you with Stepin Fetchit’s present day ghetto brethren requires constant vigilance and conflicting self-denial. That is until Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Jim and Topsy move in next door.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ highly provocative new play Neighbors, making its West Coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre Company, sets up just such a scenario. What happens when Richard, an assimilated African American academic complete with white wife and a mixed race private schooled daughter, butts head with an uncouth family of black actors named the Crows? Ones who perform in blackface? Call it Meet the Minstrels.
“Branden expressed to me that he wanted to write an August Wilson social drama with a minstrel show embedded in it,” explains Garrett, the co-head of undergraduate acting at CalArts one night after rehearsals. “I said that’s really interesting because when I did Fences in grad school at CalArts, I was looking at the intersection of the characters he writes. These sorts of recognizable stock African American people everybody knows. How far can you push those characters before they become stereotypes? What’s the extension of their distortion through stereotype and minstrelsy?”
First workshopped at the Matrix last December, Neighbors was subsequently mounted by New York’s Public Theater in February as part of their noted Lab Series. The play touched off a firestorm of reaction. Audiences were shocked by the minstrel characters’ outrageous behavior. So much so the Public uncharacteristically invited critics to review. The response ranged from vitriolic to circumspect.
The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote, “Any serious points the play hopes to make are obscured by Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s flame-throwing dramaturgy. He and director Niegel Smith hurl so many incendiary images and hackle-raising ideas at the audience the play sacrifices cogency and meaning for pure sensation.” David Cote at Time Out New York said: “Jacobs-Jenkins invents a theatrical conceit sure to baffle and enrage… Nevertheless, Neighbors is a wild carnival ride: It will make you scream, or ill, or both.”
Matrix founder and producer Joe Stern admits, “Certain people didn’t want me to do this play. A lot of other people wanted me to do it. It’s interesting,” he laughs. “I think it’s an important play. We had a very controversial reaction to the workshop after I flew Branden and Niegel out for a very intensive week. There were 100 people here. It’s one of those plays where people really get into it. Both black and white. It’s a generational thing. Some of the older black audiences don’t want to go here. And here I am this white Jewish guy but nevertheless, this is just a continuation of the dialogue we’re starting.”
Stern originally intended to produce Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment with Lee directing but ultimately found the costs too prohibitive. Lee’s agent subsequently gave Stern the works of several new playwrights with Jacobs-Jenkins’ piece among them, adding that no one had the courage to do it.
Jacobs-Jenkins is a 20-something former Brooklyn-based African American playwright, dramaturg and performer, now residing in Berlin. He studied anthropology at Princeton and received a Master’s in performance studies from NYU. Besides the Public, his work has been seen at New York Theatre Workshop, PS122, Soho Rep, New Dramatists, Theater Bielefeld in Germany and the National Theatre in London. He is a former New York Theatre Workshop Playwriting fellow plus alumna of Soho Rep Writers/Directors Lab and Public Theater Emerging Writers Group.
“Young Jean Lee’s the thing now,” Stern stresses. “Playwrights like Branden are influenced by her. There’s a whole new group of African American playwrights that see race differently. They don’t live in the world of August Wilson. They see it more acerbically and irreverently. They believe the playing field is not equal, that it’s ongoing and there is no resolution.”
“I know there are black people who don’t really want to have those conversations,” adds Garrett. “Who would really be satisfied if August Wilson represented all of us and that was sort of how it ended. That’s why I love Thomas Bradshaw. Branden. Lydia Diamond. Young Jean Lee. I love that these writers are saying, well actually, there’s a real conversation to be had.”
Embracing the N-word
It was Garrett’s directorial work on the LA premiere of Bradshaw’s Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist at Open Space that led the playwright to recommend her to Stern. In addition to her duties at CalArts, Garrett is also co-artistic director of Blank-the-Dog Productions (BTD), a Los Angeles/New York based ensemble theater company. Besides Strom Thurmond, most recent BTD works include Carolyn Bryant, a project about Emmett Till currently in development at REDCAT plus Week #29 of 365 Plays/Days by Suzan-Lori Parks (Celebration Theatre).
Additional productions include June and Jean in Concert (CalArts), Ochre and Onyx: The Langston Hughes Project (Watts Village Theatre Co.), Black Women State of the Union: An Evening of Plays by Black Women (Company of Angels – 2010 NAACP Theater Award nomination for Best Director with co-director Ayana Cahrr), world premiere of Smoke Lilies and Jade (Center for New Performance), Sucktion (REDCAT NOW FEST), They Call Me Wanjiku (in development at NY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center), Coffee Will Make You Black (Celebration Theatre), Las Meninas (CalArts) and the world premiere of Wet (REDCAT). For LA Theatre Works radio theater series she had helmed Biloxi Blues, Tape, 16 Wounded and The Living Room.
“It couldn’t be further up my alley, this play,” admits the Virginia Union University graduate. “I knew after reading three scenes I had to direct it. Mostly because it has a conversation I’d like to have about identity and what dealing with our identity does to us African Americans in particular. What’s the conversation we don’t want to have, why are we so afraid of how we’ve been represented and does it have ownership over us? I’m from the generation who decided in order to get away from the negative impact of hearing the N-word, they would just use it all the time. I’m not a rap artist so I wasn’t one of the people who perpetrated it, and I didn’t grow up in a house where it was okay to use. It’s a word I heard like once a year and my mother had to be really mad.”
Garrett says she felt liberated when her peers started to say it more frequently because that lessened her fear. Still, she didn’t want everyone to flaunt its usage. “It’s a fighting word, you know, but not one I feel stops me dead in my tracks or makes me want to cry. My first experience of it was very negative. I was five or six and told I couldn’t play with a toy everybody else was playing with because I was a n——. It was made clear enough for me to understand that word placed a limit on me. Being liberated from that limit was really important.”
In Neighbors, Aristotelian scholar Richard uses the N-word when he first sees the minstrel Crows arrive next door. But are they really that or simply his prejudiced projections? According to Garrett, Jacob-Jenkins’ intention is, “In some ways, the way we see them, or our perception of them, is through Richard’s eyes. So they might actually be minstrels or they might actually be a working class black family who moved in next door. They are judged either way. It doesn’t matter.”
That the Crows are judged by another African American raises the specter of Bill Cosby’s infamous education speech or the White House distancing itself from Shirley Sherrod. It’s an unspoken taboo topic no one wants to acknowledge publicly – that many African Americans judge each other across socio-economic lines and secretly believe as Richard does.
“That is actually what the play is saying,” Garrett emphasizes. “We think that. We actually do. We look at a group of people who might embarrass us in certain situations and we think to distance ourselves. We think it’s great when you talk about social programs that help people and bring them up and we might even help fund them and support them in certain ways. But if there are two sistahs walking down the aisle of a grocery store, and one is talking loud on her cell phone and twitching and chewing gum and smacking her kid or whatever the stereotype is or has rollers in her hair, and the other is in a business suit like Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza? She’s going to move over three aisles because she doesn’t want anyone to go, oh, those two things are alike.”
It’s not that the two extremes shouldn’t exist, Garrett insists, but certain white people believe once you peel back the Brooks Brothers veneer, the other persona lies in wait to jump out. “It’s my experience it would be acceptable if all of a sudden I started cracking my neck and snapping my gum. Like I have to either be watermelon or not. I feel like that’s what pits us against ourselves and what pits Richard against the minstrels.
“It’s fear of having to address how limiting it is for that to be your only existence in people’s eyes. So what we tend to do is fight each other about it. We want to get rid of Shaniqua and all her girlfriends because if we could just erase all of those people then we wouldn’t have to worry about how hard it is to advance. I’m a black female director. It’s strange to be me because I don’t really exist very often in this world and I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am.”
Likewise, preferring August Wilson plays to remain the standard-bearers rather than provocative works by people like Jacobs-Jenkins implies to Garrett that African Americans are not capable of looking at themselves critically in a public forum. They much prefer discussions like those raised in Neighbors to be held behind closed doors for fear exposing the minstrels gives white people license to either keep blacks down or keep them from moving forward.
“I feel like other ethnic groups in this country look at themselves critically because they don’t have to worry about how they’ve been politicized,” she says. “But I feel like we have to if we’re going to actually grow in our dialogue. We have to be able to say ‘What does it mean for Richard if he can really only see what might be a working class black family that moved into the house next door as minstrels?’ What does that say to us about ourselves? Because of our fears of being associated in a certain way, we have no way of accepting those people as a part of us.”
From Blackface to Blowback
For the actors playing the Crows, working in blackface has caused deep identity issues to surface. “I know a lot of African American actors who fight on a daily basis not to be asked to act more urban in an audition. Who can speak the speech trippingly on the tongue, you know, and who are amazing? Some of them are in this cast who fight very hard not to be stereotyped. And so even revealing the stereotypes for them is really damaging emotionally because of how hard they have to work in order not to be associated with these ideas about who they are.”
The Neighbors ensemble features Baadja-Lyne (Flatliners, The Lady Killers); Keith Arthur Bolden (Fences/Gem of the Ocean at The Fountain Theatre); Leith Burke (Judgment at Nuremberg on Broadway; three seasons with Oregon Shakespeare Festival; The Tempest at ACT); Julia Campbell (original Matrix Company member, LADCC Best Actress award in Bitter Women); James Edward Shippy (Off Broadway’s Another Man’s Poison); Rachae Thomas (Musical Theatre of LA’s Ragtime, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatricum Botanicum); Daniele Watts (Cornerstone Theatre’s Demeter in the City, Ken Roht’s 99 Cents Only Show: The Calendar Girl Competition); and Derek Webster (regular on Mental, recurring on Kville).
On the other hand admits Garrett, blackface has opened up a unique avenue for exploring mask technique. “Branden said one of the characters was borne out of a fascination with burlesque and commedia dell’arte. We’ve worked a lot on what you do behind the mask and what it represents. Like what did it mean for Bert Williams to be wearing it? There’s a lot of technical stuff too because blackface deadens the face, so what do you do with your face in order that your expressions are clear? The mask becomes a kind of puppet so what do you do with your eyes and how do you work your mouth? If there’s a moment where you’re truly invested in a kind of sadness that we actually feel for you, how do you make that work?”
She says the company hopes people get past the blackface to really look at the faces in the play, get the humor and understand the clash of dynamics. Garrett is also bracing herself for the blowback from black Angelenos.
“There’s a part of me that knows people will walk out before intermission. I know it. I know there are some people who are going to look at this and be like, no way. I have no space for this. I’m out of here. I have to shore myself up for black people who are going to feel very emotional about what’s being projected on the stage, for white people who will feel very emotional about what’s being projected on the stage, for my students who are going to come and ask what does it represent in me. And I have to make sure I’m not justifying why I’m doing this because I’m an artist or because we ‘have to’ but because I feel like it’s so necessary to have this dialogue.
“The beauty of this play is that it says I don’t know the answer. I just know there’s a question that’s not being asked. And it has to be asked every day.”
Feature image of Julia Campbell and Leith Burke by I.C. Rapoport.