Ruined is an old-fashioned play deliberately if subtly tipped toward chaos. And South Africa native Liesl Tommy's staging (a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep) — filled as it is with gunfire, the sounds of the rainforest, and the Congolese music called soukous (from the French for "shake") — is both pulsing and piquant. Oberon K.A. Adjepong brings a mischievous tenderness to versifying huckster Christian. The other men, in less developed roles, supply the production's threatening, quicksilver brawn. But its unbreakable heart is its women.
Tonye Patano (of Showtime's Weeds) is a tough, spicy cookie of a Mama Nadi, calculating, earthy, and more of a softie than you think. (I would prefer not to learn Mama's secret, or glimpse the Jell-O beneath her fiercely anti-romantic hide, in the play's ameliorating coda. But to each skilled dramatist her own.) As the wiry, preening Josephine, Zainab Jah brings to victimhood a hard, aggressive edge. Carla Duren is the cringing yet unconquerable Sophie, her singing voice a sweet ghost of a thing. Pascale Armand, as Salima, recalling the "clear and open sky" under which her hellish ordeal dawned, is the beneficiary of Nottage's most lyrical writing, and she makes it sing a ferocious and pitiable song.
If provocation were perfection, Neighbors (presented by Company One at the BCA Plaza through February 5) would rate a 10. Audacious young African-American dramatist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's herky-jerky "epic with cartoons" brings on a whole family of offensive minstrel-show characters to upset the apple cart of the bi-racial family living next door. The bigoted white folk trying to keep the naturalistically portrayed Younger clan of Lorraine Hansberry's ARaisin in the Sun off their block would probably blanch into albinos if moving day instead brought Neighbors' Crow family into the territory. The Crows are an African-American family of minstrels not only performing but also living in blackface as they purvey a racist entertainment titled Crow Family Coonapalooza. And they are black adjunct college professor Richard Patterson's worst nightmare: an ugly bundle of outrageous stereotypes from which he had dared to believe he had so distanced himself that they had ceased to exist.
NEIGHBORS Is there a dramaturg in the house?
Jacobs-Jenkins scores points for his construct: an entertainment that acknowledges not just the racism in our sociopolitical history but also in our show-biz history. The roots of American musical theater are in vaudeville, whose own dirty roots include minstrelsy. But having hatched his potentially brilliant premise, the playwright doesn't know what to do with it except give it its shock-mining, style-butting head. The amiable Crows — Mammy, Jim, Sambo, Topsy, and uncle Zip Coon — spend much of their time rehearsing and performing such "acts" as one in which Mammy, fake brown breasts exposed, suckles white babies and another in which Sambo dances about with a dangling phallus attached to a watermelon. Meanwhile, in the more naturalistic milieu next door, Richard and Jean Patterson cope with their rebellious teenage daughter, his hypertension, and the implausibly never-before-considered implications of their interracial union. Moreover, whereas Richard is appalled by the new neighbors, Jean strikes up a friendship with Zip, a silky soul in a top hat, and daughter Melody nurtures a romantic friendship with hangdog teenager Jim, the only Crow uncomfortable with the family business.
Under Summer L. Williams's courageous if sometimes sloppy direction, Company One commits itself to Neighbors in all its eye-rolling minstrelsy and marital melodrama. Among the Crows, Valerie Stephens's Mammy, teetering between parody and formidability, is a standout. And Christine Power is terrific as an increasingly hysterical Jean trying to knit together lonely housewifery and long-repressed Mandingo fantasies. The fine actor Johnny Lee Davenport plays Richard, who's gradually unhinged by the racial dybbuks next door, like Othello looking for his beta-blockers; it's not his fault he's a tragic hero trapped in an unseemly vaudeville. But that gets to the heart of the problem: to roll out a wholehearted welcome wagon for Neighbors, you have to accept that it's a mess and hope a dramaturg moves in across the street.