It’s a bold director who, in these racially sensitive times, chooses a play in which five of the eight characters ‘black up’ as side-show minstrels. However, when the director is High Tide’s Stephen Atkinson, and the five actors in question are of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity anyway, the rules of political correctness become inevitably skewed.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors is a curious inclusion for the High Tide festival. First produced in 2010, it’s hardly a new play, but this outing is its European premiere and so its presence is vindicated on that score alone. However, this is a fully-formed and challenging piece of theatre that draws its audience in with overt slapstick humour on one hand and po-faced soap-opera culture on the other, before bringing the two worlds together in a Twilight Zone-style fusion that coaxes and snares the sensibilities.
Richard and Jean Harrison – he black, she white – have moved to a suburb of an unnamed city on the American east coast, where Richard has taken up a post at a university teaching Ancient Greek history. Their mixed-race daughter, Melody (Simone James), is having problems adjusting to the move, exacerbated by her father’s disapproval of a new friend, Jim Crow (Fisayo Akinade).
Richard Harrison’s problem with the Crows, isn’t so much with the fact that they’re a family of madly-dressed stereotypical minstrels, but that they’re black people of what he perceives to be of an inferior social class. That bigotry is apparent even between people of the same ethnicity is pivotal to the narrative. The Harrisons are a dysfunctional family straight out of daytime drama, while the Crows, headed by Mammy (beautifully cross-gartered, or rather surgical stocking-ed, by Geoff Aymer), are a caricature creation echoing the black minstrel performers of the early 20th Century.
While Jean Harrison sits at home bemoaning her lack of career, her husband is struggling both with his new job and an undisclosed neurological condition that causes nosebleeds and violent headaches. Is the Crows' bizarre appearance a manifestation of Richard’s bigotry or his illness? Jacobs-Jenkins’ never resolves this question. They definitely exist in the real world because both his wife and daughter interact with them, but the possibility remains that they are in reality nothing more than a working–class travelling show.
The lives of the Crows and the Harrisons run in parallel, with the occasional convergence, as Richard’s mood becomes darker, matching that of the entire tone of the play.
Jacobs-Jenkins has given his Crow characters deliberately provocative names. While siblings Topsy and Sambo (Vanessa Babirye and Obi Ugoala) provide surreal distraction, it’s down to Craig Stein’s Zip Coon to provide the real unease as his familiar impact on Jean (Clare Calbraith) grows ever more intense.
When it was first produced in the U.S. in 2010, Neighbors was criticised as being sensationalist. Indeed, Jacobs-Jenkins may well have set out to shock audiences, but what better way to examine social discrimination than by reflecting it in the mirror of the audience’s own subconscious ethnic bigoty?