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Provocative play sees the faces behind the blackface

Author raises questions about identity, stereotypes

From left: Tory Bullock, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Lori Tishfield in “Neighbors.’’ From left: Tory Bullock, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Lori Tishfield in “Neighbors.’’ (Company One)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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At some point in his teen years, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins developed a fear of inviting people over.

His parents’ decor, he’d noticed, tended to unsettle his guests.

“They wouldn’t know what to do,’’ recalled Jacobs-Jenkins, then an honors student at a Catholic prep school in Washington, D.C. “White friends, black friends, Asian friends, everyone. I would welcome them to my house, and they would see these, like — just a wall full of mammies, and they would freak out.’’

The mammy dolls, like the signs saying “Colored Only,’’ belonged to his parents’ collection of what he called “black memorabilia’’: a cache of objects imbued with racist history. To Jacobs-Jenkins, now a 26-year-old playwright with a degree in anthropology from Princeton University, these were the cause of occasional childhood nightmares, but they were also part of his everyday life.

“So I actually feel very comfortable around these images,’’ he said the other day by phone from Berlin, where he recently finished studying on a Fulbright grant.

The images that populated his home and his dreams now populate his play, “Neighbors,’’ which opened last night at Company One. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is black, said that when he wrote it in 2007, he intended it to be “the raciest race play that ever raced’’ and the last play he would ever write about the subject: a piece that poses uncomfortable questions about the labels of blackness and whiteness, about miscegenation, about perception and identity.

A collision of styles, it sets what he described as a “post-August Wilson’’ drama against “the beginning of black theater, which is minstrelsy,’’ a form that emerged in the first half of the 19th century with white performers in blackface makeup. They embodied whites’ degrading notions of blackness, played for laughs. Black minstrels, also wearing blackface, later joined the tradition.

In approaching this sensitive territory, Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t exactly tiptoe. The script’s first racial epithet — a word this newspaper does not print — is fewer than 20 lines in. Some of the characters speak in the kind of dialect that was Stepin Fetchit’s stock in trade. The majority of the characters’ names, and many of their traits, are borrowed from archetypes steeped in bigotry.

As “Neighbors’’ begins, the Pattersons — Richard, a black professor; Jean, a white stay-at-home mom; and their 15-year-old daughter, Melody — are getting new neighbors, the Crows. Mammy; her three teenagers, Sambo, Jim, and Topsy; and her brother-in-law, Zip Coon, are performers, and their act is called the “Crow Family Coon-A-Palooza.’’

In blackface throughout the play, the Crows are racist stereotypes brought to life, though it is only Richard who is bothered by their close proximity. Zip strikes up a friendship with Jean, whose newfound efforts to discuss race with her husband go nowhere, while Melody falls into an adolescent romance with Jim, the stage manager of his family’s act and the namesake of his late father, Jim Crow Sr.

Sprinkled between the scenes of daily life are interludes of solo performance by members of the Crow family. The play’s lowercase subtitle is “an epic with cartoons,’’ and these moments — which Jacobs-Jenkins said are “a mash-up of actual minstrel postures and of course something close to burlesque’’ — are racial caricatures in bold strokes, each bit based at least in part on myths about the black body and black sexuality.

The playwright’s aim in the interludes is to bring audience members to a place of complicated emotion, where humor mingles with grotesquerie.

“What happens when you take those kinds of ideas as far as you can go?’’ he asked. “Then it becomes something that you don’t want to look at.’’

Summer L. Williams, director of the Company One production, said she had been drawn to the play in part because it “called [her] to the carpet,’’ forcing her to examine some of her own ideas about race and class in a way that no play ever had before. She was also fascinated by its examination of minstrelsy, which she said is conspicuously missing from theater history textbooks.

“No one explores this whole huge period in what essentially was, in my opinion, the beginning of the American musical,’’ said Williams, who teaches drama at Brookline High School and is Company One’s marketing director. “There’s no sense of the kind of nasty history that it all starts with. Minstrelsy, blackface: I feel like those were the things that eventually helped to define what that American musical, vaudeville, performance art sort of medium became and what we know it to be.’’

For Williams, who is black, and for her cast, reenacting some of that history onstage has come with an emotional price, she said.

“After our first rehearsal with blackface,’’ Williams said, “I had a dream, and I was thinking, who am I in all of this that all of a sudden I’m doing this to another human being? Not that I’m doing anything to someone else, but I’m asking someone to submit psychologically to something that’s very painful.’’

That pain, she said, comes from the humiliation associated with performing in blackface.

“Being the African-American black person that’s supposed to be represented in that blackface, somehow we’ve been kind of gifted the burden of the shame of that art form, where actually the paint wasn’t the issue,’’ she said.

“It was the audience that demanded, oh, this is what I want to come see: I want to come see you completely just humiliate another type of being on this planet. The shame is tied into the paint, and it’s not related back to who were the people who decided that this was going to be an artistic medium, that this was going to be celebrated, that this was going to be the thing to do Friday nights.’’

The issue is so delicate that some of Williams’s actors opted not to appear in blackface in the theater’s publicity images. When the Globe asked to shoot a rehearsal of the play, Company One stipulated that no cast members be photographed in blackface, then said that blackface photos would be allowed if the theater could approve any pictures the newspaper wanted to publish. “The actors are still getting used to the idea of appearing publicly in blackface — not to mention that they have day jobs, etc., and may not want colleagues or others seeing them in blackface . . . out of the full context of the play,’’ Mason Sand, the theater’s public relations director, explained in an e-mail. The Globe declined to photograph the rehearsal under those restrictions. The photo of cast members used with this article was provided by Company One.

At the Public Theater in New York, where “Neighbors’’ was staged last year, the play was heckled three times, Jacobs-Jenkins said. It also attracted a small, angry group who came to every talkback — and to an event uptown at the Juilliard School — and attempted to shame him.

“I wrote something that I know isn’t going to make everyone feel like gumdrops and butterflies,’’ said the playwright, who is not finished writing about race after all. Since “Neighbors,’’ he has also penned an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 miscegenation melodrama, “The Octoroon,’’ and his recent Fulbright studies have been focused in part on the mixed-race German children of African-American soldiers in World War II.

Williams said she has had nightmares every night about angry audiences protesting “Neighbors,’’ but she also feels lucky to be directing it.

As someone who became fascinated by minstrelsy as a teenager, she thinks about the people who appeared onstage in blackface back when that was one of very few options for an African-American performer. She has pondered what she would do in a similar situation.

“If someone said I had to do some sort of demeaning thing in order to direct, would I do it?’’ she said. “There’s a part of me that feels like, well, I would have to.’’

“And I wonder,’’ Williams added, “how many other people were faced with that challenge in terms of wanting to perform, wanting to be an artist, wanting to do something in that period of time, and learning to work within the borders.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollinshughes@globe.com.

NEIGHBORS Presented by Company One at the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 5. Tickets: $18-$38, students $15, discounts for seniors; pay-what-you-can performance today at 2 p.m. ($6 minimum). 617-933-8600, www.boston theatrescene.com