Neighbors actors, clockwise from left: Daniele Watts, Keith Arthur Bolden, Baadja-Lyne, Leith Burke, James Edward Sheppey
An African-American family in blackface moves in next door. What's an upwardly mobile African-American and his white wife to do? "Neighbors" pushes most every possible boundary. "Neighbors" opens this weekend at the Matrix Theatre.
"We’re a society that likes to labels things," says director Nataki Garrett, "so once we’re done dealing with them we call them ‘post’ – so we live in a post-racist America because there’s post-black now because we have a black president so we no longer need to worry about what it means to be black because he’s the quintessence of blackness now."
Nataki Garrett is directing what some reviewers have called the most provocative play you’re likely to see this year. “Neighbors” premiered earlier this year at the Public Theatre in New York and shocked audiences with its raw language, sexual content and portrayal of African-American actors in blackface. It opens this weekend at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood.
A family – obnoxious, uncouth and shamelessly stereotypical – moves in next door to an upwardly mobile African-American academic. His neighbors begin to infiltrate his life and his entire post-racial lifestyle. The tension between them tests the limits of elitism, privilege and survival.
"At some point it’s so over the top," says Garrett, "that it comes back down to something very simple. Once it blows the idea out of the park, then you’re just left with the nucleus which is this sort of ‘who are these people when they connect to one another’ and what does that mean in terms of racism? And what does that mean in terms of interracial marriage? What does that mean in terms of relationships where people don’t communicate who they are and what they need?"
"Truthfully, I’m a little bit of a provocateur and, not in a big sense, but I like to create self doubt when people are self righteous," says producer Joe Stern. Stern has run the Matrix Theatre for more than 35 years, staging Chekov, Pinter and works by other great writers.
"Basically, this theater had a mostly white audience all these years and we wanted to see if we could get different ethnicities into the theater and bring those audiences together, in the lobby, outside the theater," says Stern. "So it was to stimulate some kind of dialogue and inclusion."
Last year, Stern produced “Stick Fly.” It also dealt with elitism within a black family, but family secrets – not personal fear – tore at the family. That Matrix production attracted a large African-American audience.
"The audience that came to see 'Stick Fly' will be somewhat taken aback by this," says Stern.
Director Nataki Garrett explains that “Neighbors” is not a play for unsophisticated children. The theater has tacked on an “18 or older” recommendation for audiences. Garrett mentions a black family who left at intermission during a recent preview because of a graphic sexual moment. I thought that meant the family missed the "real" storyline – of race.
"I think, in this country in particular, sex and race are intertwined," says Garrett. "And the play talks about the fears of misogynation [sic], black men and white women coming together, in a very graphic, sexual way. I feel that is the nucleus of racism in this country – that it comes these very real fears over what would happen if people were allowed to step outside of these boundaries."
Joe Stern, the producer, recalls his conversation with the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who also writes for "the New Yorker."
"And he said, 'look, when I left Dartmouth, I thought it was an even playing field and I found out that it wasn’t,'" says Stern. "Does that mean he had to go to work as a janitor? No, it’s more subtle, about what you guys were talking about, about elitism and survival and privilege. I think that’s why he wrote the play. And what he’s saying with this play is there are no answers. It’s not resolved."
“Neighbors” opens tomorrow and continues through October 24 at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose in Los Angeles.