When you glance at the program before a play begins and notice that some of the characters are named Mammy, Zip Coon, Sambo, Topsy and Jim — and that they're all members of the Crow family — you get the sense that subtlety will not be a predominant aspect of the evening's entertainment.
And that is certainly true with Neighbors, the outrageous, aggressively flawed and entirely compelling work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, now being produced by Convergence-Continuum at the Liminis Theater. It splays out racial stereotypes and black-white tensions in such a brazen theatrical fashion that it almost beggars description.
Don't believe me? At one point Sambo employs his prodigious penis, which is as long as a first down marker chain on football sidelines, to drag a watermelon on stage and then have sex with it. And Topsy masturbates with a banana.
This is the first produced play by the young but already renowned Jacobs-Jenkins, and that rawness shows. It is as confrontational as a punch to the face. But it bristles with ideas and perspectives that he has delivered with more restraint and wit in plays such as An Octoroon, which was produced by Dobama Theatre last season.
Neighbors is juvenile, messy, and often irritating — much like Melody, the 15-year-old daughter of a mixed-race couple living on a quiet suburban street. One day her black dad Richard Patterson, a college professor, looks out his window and sees new neighbors moving in. They are African-Americans wearing garish blackface makeup and loud costumes, brashly declaring their presence on the street.
We soon learn they are members of a performing troupe and they put on shows called "Coon-a-paloozas," in which they engage in a variety of demeaning skits and songs dragged from the depths of minstrelsy. Richard is highly offended by their presence, but his white wife Jean wants to seem friendly, and so do the Crows. So rotund Zip Coon stops by the Patterson house, bearing a jar of pigs' feet and intestines as a gesture of goodwill.
From there, the play is off and running as Jacobs-Jenkins gleefully rips the lids off any and all racial cliches and mealy mouthed rationalizations. Jean welcomes Zip Coon into her home and offers him a cup of tea. Meanwhile, at the house next door, the Crow family is trying to bring young Jim Crow into the act. He's supposed to replace the recently deceased father of the family, whose ashes are on prominent display in a jar in their living room.
Amidst all the extraneous activities, the play centers on two relationships: the bond growing between Jean and Zip Coon and Melody's attraction to the shy and naive Jim. There are, indeed, some moments when these characters slip into some naturalistic scenes that feel tender and affecting.
But outrage is the game that the playwright is most interested in, and the cast under the fearless direction of Terrence Spivey delivers the goods. Prophet D. Seay is nearly perfect as Richard, simmering with rage at seeing the new black family act out in ways he abhors. Richard is working his way up through the jungle of academe, and the Crows pose an existential threat to his reality. Kim Woodworth, as his wife Jean, has some effective moments, especially as she gets progressively closer to Zip Coon. But Woodworth's Jean remains a bit vague, and that's a problem in a show with such over-the-top characters.
In the role of the teenage terror Melody, Shannon Ashley Sharkey whines and screams appropriately. And she interacts well with the excellent Anthony X as Jim, whose tentative approach to his family's business and his halting relationship with Melody are the most affecting parts of the play. So when he explodes in a rage-tinged performance as part of the clan's act, it is quite shattering.
As for the other Crows, they are uniformly on point. Kennetha Martin's Topsy is a wide-eyed marvel of glorious overacting, while energetic Joshua McElroy as Sambo makes the most of a smaller part. Jeannine Gaskin fashions Mammy as the calm center of this weird family dynamic, slyly teasing reactions from others. And A. Harris Brown is wonderful as Zip Coon, ingratiating himself with Jean while sharing his real feelings with the audience in over-the-shoulder doubletakes.
Without performances this strong, Neighbors could easily collapse under the weight of its own self-consciously extended metaphors. Later in the play, photos of many black entertainers are projected on the back wall, seeming to suggest that they, like the Crows, are just willing dupes selling themselves out for a corrupt society. And that's a bit of a stretch.
That is just one of several wretched excesses in a play which, at more than 2 ½ hours, is too long and could be easily edited down to a more impactful length. But the riveting Con-Con performances keep it all remarkably engrossing, and that's quite an achievement in itself.