The New York Times called 33-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “one of this country’s most original and illuminating writers.”
The New Yorker compared him to Sam Shepard, Lorraine Hansberry and Eugene O’Neill.
He is cerebral, provocative and his awards – which include the 2014 Obie Award for “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon,” recognition as a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play “Gloria,” and a 2016 MacArthur Fellow “genius” grant – are imposing.
But Jacobs-Jenkins got off to a shaky start with his first full-length work, “Neighbors,” a wildly theatrical, frequently outrageous, and overly ambitious play is in production by convergence-continuum.
The piece’s protagonist, Richard Patterson (Prophet D. Seay), is an uptight black adjunct professor who is married to a white woman, Jean (Kim Woodworth), and has a teenage daughter (Shannon Ashley Sharkey). His world view and sense of self gets a kick in the head when a black family in minstrel blackface, buffoonish clothing and white gloves – the jiving Sambo (Joshua McElroy), the sassy Mammy (Jeannine Gaskin), the happy-go-lucky Topsy (Kennetha Martin), the strutting Zip (A. Harris Brown) and the rebellious Jim Crow (Anthony X) – move in next door.
They are loud, loutish and low-class – just the kind of blackness Patterson has sought to escape. They become a destabilizing force in the Patterson household as tensions between the neighbors mount, turning Richard’s life into the sort of Greek tragedy he lectures about at a local college and raising – more like provoking – important questions about race and racism.
“I wrote ‘Neighbors’ and never actually thought anyone would ever produce it, so I felt I had license to do whatever I wanted,” said Jacobs-Jenkins in an interview during the play’s 2010 debut at The Public Theatre in New York.
Produced and brutally panned by the press for its undisciplined writing and pretentiousness, the play resulted in a resounding three-year gap in the playwright’s resume before he resurfaced with a string of successes.
Many theaters, including Dobama in Cleveland Heights, have discovered Jacobs-Jenkins and are producing his award-winning plays. Leave it to
con-con to venture headfirst and full-speed into his riskiest, naughtiest and most problematic, nearly-three hour, work.
And leave it to audacious director Terrence Spivey to incite all the play’s irritants, accentuate its offensive racial caricatures, and highlight its self-aware metaphors. He makes the most out of moments that are, on the page, overreaching, undercooked and excessive.
But he also places dramatic emphasis on the poignant and powerful moments that unexpectedly surface amidst the blatant outrageousness – the stuff Jacobs-Jenkins would eventually refine and be rewarded for.
It is in these moments – when Jean engages in a manic monologue about her attraction to a black men, when Zip steps out of his caricature and brutally confronts Richard, and when the entire Crow family fearlessly stares down and confronts the audience – that this production of “Neighbors” hits on all cylinders and its performers are at their best.
Spivey is not helped by the performance space he is handed, which amounts to a long and narrow platform that houses, side by side, the interiors of the Crow and Patterson homes. While this space is intimate and revealing, the creative video projections designed by Clyde Simon to establish a sense of place and perspective bleed onto the performers and Cory Molner’s lighting creates blind spots that too often keep actors in darkness.
Aesthetic warts aside, this con-con production is always engaging and most of the acting is first-rate. It should inspire the theater’s brain trust to stage more works by this playwright and encourage audiences to come and see them.