Blackface meets postracial in a wildly provocative new play.

  • COLOR LINES Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch pick apart their marriage.

COLOR LINES Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch pick apart their marriage.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Minstrelsy is in the DNA of showbiz. While the tradition of white entertainers slathering themselves in black greasepaint and red lipstick and jabbering in a cartoonish pidgin accent has become thankfully obsolete, such 19th-century acts formed the basis of vaudeville, which in turn birthed the American musical and filtered down to us over the past 60 years through television and movies. Even African-American performers such as Bert Williams blacked up. You could argue that the racist genre has influenced stand-up comedy, rap music and even Tyler Perry sitcoms. The genetic connection comes full circle in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s messy, audacious, fitfully stunning Neighbors. Early on, Mammy (Tonye Patano) tells Jim (Brandon Gill) that he is destined to be in the Crow family act. “It’s in yo’ blood, Jimmy,” the matriarch says. “Dat ear fo’ pitch. Dat innate rhythm. Them fast-twitchin’ muscle fibers that make for good dancing.” But Jimmy, a nerdy black teen in blackface, finds himself drawn to the biracial girl next door.

Jacobs-Jenkins invents a theatrical conceit sure to baffle and enrage: The Patterson family is a modern, assimilated middle-class unit, and the Crow clan (comprising African-American actors in blackface) is an old-time minstrelsy troupe that moves in next door. The playwright elides any middle ground between pandering racist circus and postracial bourgeois drama, and lets the two sides tear each other apart for our appalled amusement.

Neighbors is a workshop production that the Public decided was ready for critics, a mixed blessing. Yes, it’s exciting to hear a new voice that is by turns silly and profound, hybridizing highbrow and lowbrow sources. And director Niegel Smith balances a variety of acting modes with flair. But the show could lose 20 minutes (especially in the repetitive, monologue-heavy second act), and aspects of the Pattersons’ lives are unconvincing (an interracial couple waiting 15 years to talk about ethnicity). Nevertheless, Neighbors is a wild carnival ride: It will make you scream, or ill, or both.—David Cote

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Public Theater. By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Dir. Niegel Smith. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.