“Neighbors” at Mixed Blood Theatre

Brittany Bradford as Melody in "Neighbors"

Mixed Blood has opened their season with an outrageous play and an equally outrageous concept, and I am equally impressed with both. The play is Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a biting satire of every Black stereotype you’ve ever heard of; the concept is Radical Hospitality, offering their shows free – no strings – “Revolutionizing Access” to everyone. Both are impressive and bold moves for this great Twin Cities theater.

I don’t think you want to be the one who has to say to your friends who are talking about this play, “No, I didn’t see that.” And people will be talking about this play. I suspect that the buzz will keep growing long after it closes October 9, and I’m fairly certain there won’t be anything like it in the Twin Cities this theater season. If you’re something more than a casual theater-goer looking for entertainment, you have to see this.

Although it’s laugh-out-loud funny, just as good satire ought to be, it also colors way outside the lines, zig-zagging us in and out of our comfort zones with alarming speed and accuracy.

The play’s message is hung on the story of the Pattersons, who have recently moved to accommodate Richard’s new job teaching in the classics department of a university. His wife, Jean (Sarah Agnew) is an out-of-work writer, snubbed by their suburban neighborhood and drifting in loneliness, although her naturally sunny disposition belies her turmoil. He is Black, she is white; their daughter, Melody (Brittany Bradford), in the throes of her angst over being in a new school, communicates primarily with teenaged rants.

That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But then the Crows move in next door: Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Jim and Topsy. They are minstrel entertainers. In blackface.

Prof. Richard Patterson (Bruce A. Young) is an eloquent speaker, when he gets his confidence pumped up by his wife, and an up-and-coming academic. The neighbors are absolutely everything he doesn’t want to be, and precisely the perception about himself that he would abhor.

Mammy (Shawn Hamilton), for example, mispronounces the simplest words (dee-butt for debut) in speeches delivered in a commanding, matriarchal voice. Everyone in the family does what she says, of course, setting up a pattern that perpetuates a whole string of stereotypical behaviors in the Crow family.

Her children, Sambo (Christian Gibbs) and Topsy (Tatiana Williams), buy into the family entertainment business, but son, Jim, does not fit in. He’s also falling for Melody and much more taken with the idea of going to school – something he’s never done.

Mammy’s brother-in-law, Zip (Thomas W. Jones II), who’s putting the moves on Jean while Richard is away, blurts out wildly inappropriate things to her, and then has a perfect excuse to return with a smarmy apology. This developing relationship has all the makings of bringing at least one house down.

The giant metaphor that pretty much hits you in the face is clear enough, but trying to summarize the plot or explain relationships just sits on the surface of what this play really is about. I had the creeping feeling that the antics of the Crow family were really just our collective subconscious racist fears bubbling to the surface – perceptions that just could not be made to tone down or correct themselves, much less go away permanently. In fact, given the ending – a literal confrontation with the audience where the characters had nothing left to say – I’d say that I’m not too far off.

This was truly an ensemble show with remarkable performances turned in by the entire cast, and Nataki Garrett’s direction was a solid success with her no sentimentality, no-BS-allowed approach.

Recommended. Adult content.

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