by SOPHIE KERMAN
“Provocative” is too cliché a word to describe Neighbors, the Mixed Blood‘s season opener. Although the publicity materials for this recent play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins use words like “subversive,” “real,” and “scathing,” the Mixed Blood has earned the right to tell it like it is: this ensemble will sneak up behind you, rip you open and turn you inside out without a please, thank you, or pardon me. And you’ll thank them for doing it.
It seems dangerous for a theater company to approach the subject of race by staging the clash of a mixed-race family and a minstrel troupe who moves in next door. And yet the Mixed Blood’s expert ensemble cast avoids the pitfalls of its challenging material by presenting individuals, relationships, and stereotypes in all their raw brutality. The Crow family of minstrels is played by black actors in black-face, and their show pulls no punches in reviving the figures of Mammy (played by Shawn Hamilton after Warren C. Bowles suffered a non-fatal cardiac arrest on opening night), Zip Coon (Thomas W. Jones II), Sambo (Christian Gibbs), Topsy (Tatiana Williams) and, of course, Jim Crow himself (Chris Hampton) – all of whom are sharply aware of their audience’s expectations of the roles they play.
It is not until later that Classics professor Richard Patterson (Bruce A. Young) and his wife Jean (Sarah Agnew) reveal that they, too, are playing roles – both for each other and for the sterile residential and academic communities they so ardently wish to gain access to. As their teenage daughter Melody (a hilarious and all-too-relatable Brittany Bradford) becomes more and more entranced by the family of actors next door, the performance of identity gains a violent urgency.
This production is not for children, but not because of the grotesque sexuality that the Crow family sometimes displays; rather, it is because it plays on images of race that we all wish we had never been exposed to. Explaining Zip or Topsy to a child might be a daunting task, but it is unnerving how quickly we recognize these figures as adults. Although we might pretend to live in a “post-race society,” these unflinching portrayals demonstrate just how profoundly these stereotypes are rooted in our cultural consciousness, so deep that even pop artists like Beyoncé or Lil’ Kim can’t seem to break free.
In the program note to “Neighbors,” director Nataki Garrett asks, “Who owns the image and what is the truth?” In other words: at what point does how we “act” become how we act? And who is allowed to manipulate the boundary that separates the person from the persona? To the families on stage, control over their image is the key to their survival, and despite Wrara Plesoiu‘s deceptively benign suburban set, the audience is never allowed to relax into comfortable voyeurism. We struggle with the paint on these actors’ faces, with Mammy’s voluptuous female figure, with Topsy’s dance montage to several decades’ worth of black vocalists. And we try to untie Jean’s rhetorical knots: Is there a difference between having a black husband and a husband who “happens to be” black? Confronted with the pain and cruelty behind these characters’ experiences, it feels more and more like an injustice to claim that one can just “happen to be” anything.
Richard Patterson fights to continue with his routine while facing a barrage of questions he would prefer not to answer. (Young’s performance is right on, showing these deeply-ingrained anxieties on his face with the hidden menace of a man who has grown used to being in control.) And yet it is one of Richard’s early lectures on Greek tragedy that holds the keys to the play. “Where does loss begin?” he asks. “Where does tragedy begin?” Tragedy, he suggests, is “beyond the drama itself,” contained in an endless aggregation of seemingly unimportant choices. Where, then, does the tragedy of race begin? The production provides no easy answers. But as you consider the painted faces at the play’s heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, and resolutely inconclusive conclusion, you will be glad that the Mixed Blood is asking the question.
Two things to note: In keeping with its values of thought-provoking performance that encourages community engagement both inside and outside the theater, the Mixed Blood has begun a no-cost admission practice called “Radical Hospitality” (some other graduate students can have fun with that title). They are also offering FREE FOR(U)M, an open audience discussion, after every performance (Producer in ResidenceJamil Jude provides context and unobtrusively guides the discussion). If only all theaters were so skilled at (in the words of Artistic Director Jack Reuler) “walking the talk”!