Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ audacious new play explores racial stereotypes.

Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch in Neighbors
(© Ari Mintz)
Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch in Neighbors
(© Ari Mintz)

The arrival of an African-American family in an affluent neighborhood in a college town has some decidedly unexpected effects in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ audacious, often hilarious, and sometimes strained,
Neighbors, playing at the Public Theater.

Directed with zest by Niegel Smith and performed with tenacity and fearlessness by the ensemble, the play focuses on classics professor Richard (played with deliberate ferocity by Chris McKinney), who is particularly disturbed when he sees the Crow family moving in. Though African-American himself, he mutters the N-word as he watches the larger-than-life family unpack through the window of his ultra-chic kitchen (seen side by side with the Crows’ cluttered and antique-filled living room in Mimi Lien’s effective scenic design), shocking his Caucasian wife Jean (an increasingly heartbreaking Birgit Huppuch).

When Richard sees his angst-ridden and petulant teen-age daughter Melody (an often hysterical Danielle Davenport) chatting with the Crows’ eldest son, Jim (imbued with moving sweetness by Brandon Gill), Richard goes ballistic. When he learns that Jim’s uncle Zip Coon (Eric Jordan Young, who seems to channel both Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and RuPaul) has been paying friendly visits to Jean during the day, Richard demands that Jean not let the man in the house ever again.

Richard’s dislike for the Crows increases in direct proportion to his wife and daughter’s fondness for them. Jim and Melody fall in love and she even begins to flirt with the idea of performing in their act, a thought that’s placed there by Jim’s mother, Mammy (Tonye Patano, playing a cross between Hattie McDaniel and Mabel King) while Jean and Zip become increasingly close. Meanwhile, Jean and Zip’s conversations also cause her to question if his race played a factor in her decision to marry Richard.

It’s a recipe for both sit-com like humor and rather familiar family drama that’s enlivened by Jacobs-Jenkins’ depiction of the Crows as some of the most distasteful African-American stereotypes of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The family also includes two other children, Topsy (whom Jocelyn Bioh renders as a sort of Butterfly McQueen with 21st- century attitude) and Sambo (Okieriete Onaodowan). During the course of Neighbors, each actor in the Crow Family, who also wears exaggerated blackface makeup throughout, performs a minstrel show-like routine that only underscores the stereotype they embody.

Unfortunately, this over-the-top satire about the legacy of negative African-American iconography undercuts Jacobs-Jenkins’ desire to portray Richard as a modern-day tragic figure, who is brought down by his disdain for the Crows and his feeling that he is better than and has risen above (particularly, he hopes, in the eyes of his white colleagues) the types that they represent.

Yet, given that the characters both dress (in Gabriel Berry’s witty yet cringe-inducing costumes) and behave so outrageously, Richard’s reaction to the family is mitigated to a degree. There’s no question that he’s a pompous and self-centered boor, but one can’t help but imagine how his increasingly violent reaction to the Crows might have come across were they not being portrayed so flamboyantly.

While Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing is fanciful and flavorful, Neighbors often feels over-crammed, particularly as the writer overstresses his themes of Greek tragedy in two lectures that Richard delivers. Additionally, the minstrel show sequences — though often bizarrely outrageous — seem strangely recycled. However, with some revisions, Neighbors could prove to be a uniquely powerful work.