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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Neighbors, a new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins starts in a peaceful, familiar middle class suburb, home to Richard, a black upwardly mobile professor and his white wife, Jean. As the play opens, a family of minstrels, black face and all, moves in to the adjacent tract home. The neighbors have come to town to mount their traditional minstrel show as if they've traveled straight out of 1850. Suddenly onstage, and living next door, is Mammy, Sambo, Topsy, and Zip Coon. What happens over the course of the play is a kind of internal race war as Richard and Jean are forced to grapple with their own assumptions about who they really are.

New York playwright Jacobs-Jenkins has found a door into the yesterday, and today, of race in America. He's had our past move in next door. Jacobs-Jenkins is a recent grad of NYU's Performance Studies program, a school as concerned with the history and context of performance as the performance itself. So it's no surprise that the play is one part history lecture and one part drama. And conceptually, the idea for Neighbors is fantastic.

But structurally, the script doesn't quite live up to this didactic weight. The play really hits home near the end of the second act when the past and the present - figuratively and then literally - grapple with who's really living the stereotypical life. Unfortunately, much of the play feels like a setup for that confrontation. The writing isn't helped by Director Nataki Garrett - her pacing is a bit too ponderous - and we in the audience keep getting ahead of the action.

Back to the audience. The real drama of this piece occurs, as it should, in the seats. On opening night, the house was wonderfully mixed. You could feel the audience recoil and they're confronted by an actor in black-face and there's a powerful hesitation and self-awareness that washes over the crowd. The baggage of our own race becomes a part of the drama. Suddenly, we all privately, and collectively, wonder: is it okay to laugh? Can I, a white man, laugh at this? Are we shocked? Are we appalled? Are these historical relics or modern realities?

Over the course of an evening, theater audiences slowly create their own culture . . . their own community. I have to admit that one of the pleasures of the play was watching the audience watch themselves, discovering differences and connections as the characters resonated with each of us. That magic requires the same diversity in the seats as on the stage.

This year, one major LA theatrical institution has completely abrogated its responsibility to create theater as diverse as the city it resides in. So I applaud the Matrix for stepping up and producing challenging work that at first glance doesn't fit their typical fare.

Neighbors plays through October 24th at the Matrix Theater in Hollywood. For info on the play text the word “Curtain” to 69866.

Would you find black-face shocking? Join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Neighbors: A Play with Cartoons, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Nataki Garrett, and starring Keith Arthur Bolden, Leith Burke, Julia Campbell, Baadja-Lyne, James Edward Shippy, Rachae Thomas, Daniele Watts & Derek Webster
The West Coast Premiere, August 28 – October 24, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm
Tickets: $25; Reservations & Information: (323) 852-1445, or buy tickets online at www.MatrixTheatre.com


Banner image: Julia Campbell and Leith Burke in Neighbors at the Matrix Theatre. Photo: I.C. Rapoport

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