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Provocative 'Neighbors' question racial stereotypes

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

Does Jacobs-Jenkins take these kinds of artistic risks in “Neighbors?” The answer is a mix. There is a powerfully uncomfortable scene in the later going that has the Crows staring at BCA theatergoers so unrelievedly that each audience is likely to experience a crisis of conscience about personal assumptions, attitudes and beliefs.

A scene connecting a watermelon to sexually suggestive stage action needs more edge and darkness. Also, more subtlety is needed when analogies are made between Richard’s and Agamemnon’s families. Theatergoers familiar with the Wolfe play may find that “Neighbors” is not quite in the same league as satire.

Newcomers to shock theater and this kind of envelope-pushing should find Jacobs-Jenkins’ effort largely satisfying. Director Summer L.Williams sharply paces the strongest moments — particularly the Crows’ stare down with the audience on the one hand and the growing understanding between Melody and Jim on the other. She needs to bring the same tightness to the exchanges between Richard and his wife and disagreements between some of the Crows themselves.

The Crows’ minstrelsy-evoking Coonapalooza performance within the play is telling and generally arresting.

In a similar vein, Williams succeeds with some cast members and not so much with others. Best are Lori Tishfield, affecting and vulnerable as Melody, and Tory Bullock, increasingly plucky and undaunted as Jim. Japonica Brown makes the most of Topsy Crow’s emotionally riveting monologue.

Johnny Lee Davenport, a consistently galvanic actor, does well with Richard’s self-questioning but needs more understatement in arguments between Melody’s parents. Christine Power plays Jean at such a high pitch from the start that she misses her character’s gradual transformation with regard to Zip and the Crow family. Equiano Mosieri has the right style and attitude as Zip. Valerie Stephens is properly tenacious as Mammy Crow, and Jesse Tolbert has force as Sambo Crow.

The design team provides good complement to the play’s soul-searching.

Benjamin Williams’ nuanced lighting enhances the play’s vivid family contrast. Julia Noulin-Merat’s set design captures both the overlapping and diverging concerns of the Crows and the Pattersons.

“Neighbors” is shaking up the sometimes overly tranquil Hub theater scene, and that is all to the good. Company One has made an important commitment this season to African American fare with strong messages. Look for gifted local director David Wheeler to helm the troupe’s Boston premiere of  “The Book of Grace,” a new Suzan-Lori Parks work also expected to confront difficult issues.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play may not quite rise to the caliber of  Parks’ “Topdog/ Underdog” or Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” but  Hub audiences should check out its timely observations and Company One’s spirited stagecraft.