Tonye Patano, a black actor in New York City, was so consumed last year by reading a script about minstrelsy, she was late for an audition. The story had rattled and repulsed her. But she couldn't put it down. The day when she finally headed to the audition, she heard a group of young black teens on the street riffing in racially charged language.
"It was their way of relating to each other," said Patano. "My response in my spirit was: 'Young man, do you hear what you're saying?' But they were owning who they were, not caring about anyone's judgment. Even if I don't agree with it, they had made the language their own."
Encapsulated in Patano's response is the very dichotomy the actor eventually encountered when The Public Theatre cast her as the character Mammy in last-year's workshop of the same play she had been reading that day -- "Neighbors" by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Mammy is the matriarch of the Crows, an African American family of blackface entertainers who move next door to the Pattersons -- a mixed-race middle-class family -- in the suburbs. The conflict of the play arises when Richard Patterson, who is black, panics that, by association, his cartoonish neighbors will ruin his chances for advancement at the university where he works. Instead, Richard comes undone, his marriage deteriorates and his young daughter runs off with Jim Crow, Jr.
The play is wrapping up its Boston premiere at Company One, and outside of Jacobs-Jenkins' surreal setting -- that is to say, out here in the so-called real world -- "Neighbors" has given rise to countless and confusing discussions about race and about art. Is it an offensive play because it re-awakens appalling stereotypes from a painful past without offering new answers? Is the play pandering to a "white-gaze" audience -- or calling out a "black-gaze" audience, as some have suggested? Is the play a therapeutic working out of the author's own self-image around race (he's black), or -- even more disquieting to many -- his way of assimilating imagery that doesn't haunt his generation (he was 23 when he wrote the play) as it may for his elders who fought for his right to be a successful playwright?
Most important: What do we want from theater, from art? To ensconce the sacred? To capture some mythological universality about experience and history? To splay our deepest anxieties and catastrophes -- as a country, community or individual -- across a stage?
"Neighbors" does not comfortably provide answers to any of these questions, but it does remind us, as the prophet Jeremiah does, that you cannot heal a wound by saying it does not exist.
"Confronting racism is impossible without it being very hard," a white English professor told me. "Everyone I know has his or her 'denial' quotient at work. I think this show rips the bandage and the scab off the unhealed wound, and starts a very genuine process of facing it."
The night I saw the play, five black colleagues expressed utter rage and disappointment. Who IS this play for, they wondered, because it was not for them. How could the playwright be so irresponsible? Had their generation somehow failed a younger one by not properly passing on history?
"I don't need to see this again," said one of the women. "I've seen it already and enough." The next day, Lydia Diamond, whose play "Stick Fly" is about a black family on Martha's Vineyard, said she had been dazzled by "Neighbors" as a "bold play by a young writer pushing the envelope on race."
"Neighbors" has had a strong run in Boston, said Shawn LaCount, artistic director at Company One, where half the patrons are under the age of 35 and half are people of color -- an astounding mix for any theater in the U.S. Post-show discussions facilitated by Melinda Weekes, of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, who retains most of the audience for intergenerational, interracial conversations that have reflected broad responses, as well as vulnerability and bravery -- and have outrun the time the theater allots for such discussions. That doesn't necessarily mean the play is great art, but it does mean it's tapping into something raw.
What if, in the end, "Neighbors" is a social experiment conducted by a young artist poking around in the family attic and filtering artifacts through his unique experience of his own identity in the 21st century -- even in defiance of his elders?
After all, artists -- like all of us -- are permitted to express experience through their own vision rather than through received knowledge.
Jacobs-Jenkins had something he needed to say about images that may mean one thing to his mother, a Harvard Law School graduate, and another thing to him.
"I was really bothered by this idea that theater is going to do something about race," said Jacobs-Jenkins, who studied anthropology at Princeton and points to his favorite play ("A Streetcar Named Desire") and the social theorist Paul Gilroy as major influences. "We clap and go home and don't really do anything about it. My dream is that the individual audience member will leave with an urge to talk about race - not even with someone else but with himself."
Tonye Patano is now playing another matriarch -- Mama Nadi -- across town in the Huntington's production of another extraordinarily difficult play, "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning story about rape and war in the Congo. She said performing in "Neighbors" last year expanded her sense of the responsibility and reflection that walk hand-in-hand with identity and race -- even as its staunchest critics say this is exactly what the play is lacking.
"I don't know if I liked Branden's play," she said. "That's not the point. Everyone is a stereotype until you know someone. You can categorize until you know someone. That's what I find theater does best: not the easy thing but it forces people to take notice."
For all its strengths or weaknesses -- and it has both -- "Neighbors" and its creative team are offering a disturbing work of art that requires -- indeed, demands -- dialogue and debate about the way stereotypes continue to infect our sensibilities and communities in America.