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Provocative 'Neighbors' question racial stereotypes

Jules Becker | 2/1/2011, 9:20 a.m.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Robert Frost are on the same page when it comes to “good fences.”

Frost sees walling people out as unnatural, and so does the 20-something African American playwright in his envelope-pushing 2010 drama “Neighbors.”

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play may seem like a funky shock effort to some seasoned theatergoers. Still, Company One’s laudably eye-catching Boston premiere proves that Jacobs-Jenkins is a writer to be watched and his provocative effort has a lot to say about love, hate, bigotry and human understanding.

Set in what the author calls “a distorted present,” “Neighbors” finds the noisy, in-your-face Crow family moving in next door to the fairly restrained bi-racial Pattersons. Richard Patterson, an African American university professor who avoids making waves, likes to think that his white wife Jean, daughter Melody and he have been successfully assimilating.

The Crows, the title newcomers, change all that. The new neighbors (and the actors who play them) are blacks in blackface. All of the five Crows take their names from stereotypical figures that were firmly established from 1830 to 1890 in minstrel shows where the performers were whites in blackface and white audiences latched on to stereotypes of blacks as if they were reality.

Jacobs-Jenkins clearly means to have the directness and political incorrectness of the Crows confront all theatergoers — white and black — with issues of stereotyping and class.

At the same time, fictional Richard’s discomfort escalates as he struggles with an internal battle between assimilating and facing up to the challenges of his roots and identity that the Crows evoke in person and in their minstrelsy. One moment, he must face the possibility that Jean is significantly attracted to Beau Brummel-like Zip Coon, whose character made fun of free blacks in the age of minstrelsy.

At another moment, Melody and Jim Crow sense that there is real chemistry between them. Ironically, Richard is filling in for a fellow professor who has been teaching the Euripides drama “Iphigenia at Taurus.” In the classic play, Greek king Agamemnon prepares to sacrifice his title daughter to appease the gods. Will Richard have to sacrifice his daughter in an analogous pursuit of peace of mind and tranquility?

By the time the play ends, audience members should be questioning their own sacrifices and engaging in soul-searching that is likely to continue long after they have left the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).

Theatergoers familiar with the 1986 George C. Wolfe play “The Colored Museum” will probably call to mind this earlier work’s satiric playlets — especially “The Last Mama on the Couch Play.”

The politically incorrect target here is the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which the focal black family seeks out middle class stability with the purchase of their own home. Wolfe means to have theatergoers question that stability, especially as that family will be surrounded by bigots. This kind of self-questioning also affects a businessman — in another playlet — who once listened to Sly Stone music and adopted a radical sensibility about life.