Adventures in uncomfortable theater

neighbors.JPGActor Chris Hampton in “Neighbors,” Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis. (Photo/Ann Marsden.)

Last weekend I went to Mixed Blood Theatre on the West Bank to see “Neighbors,” and if I wouldn’t be depriving someone else of a seat, I’d go see it again. For one thing, thanks to Mixed Blood’s “radical hospitality” experiment, it’s free. For another, this play is the real thing: theater that messes with your mind and makes you want to talk to somebody about it. The night I went, dozens of people stayed behind for the discussion period that follows every performance.

If you don’t want to be offended, don’t go. The play’s offensive. A normal, modern-day, mixed-race family with ordinary problems gets new neighbors: an extended family of African-Americans in blackface who embody every racist canard you’ve ever heard of, and a few you probably haven’t. (When “Mammy,” the matriarch of Family B, bums a cigarette from the teen-age daughter of Family A, it turns out to be a Marlboro. Mammy takes a deep drag and says, “Honey, we got to get you some Newports.”) The stereotypes tumbled over each other so fast that I couldn’t help laughing — which I almost regretted during the post-play discussion, when an African-American patron asked the white people in the audience how long it took them to realize they shouldn’t be laughing. Gulp.

Three nights later, I sat in another audience, in another theater, during another discussion about race. MPR’s Kerri Miller interviewed NPR’s Michele Norris as part of the “One Minneapolis, One Read” program. (You can listen to that discussion here.) Once again, audience members seemed eager to share their perspectives on our supposedly post-racial society. Also once again, the people of color present didn’t seem to think the prefix “post” applied too well. When Norris asked audience members how often they were conscious of their race when they were out in the world, a woman behind me whispered, “Every minute. Every second.”

That the conversation is happening at all feels like a positive development, and it warms my theater- and public-radio-loving heart that two of my favorite institutions are at the middle of it. During the Michele Norris program at the Guthrie, a woman in the audience channeled Rodney King’s wish that we could all just get along. “How do we do that?” she asked.

Norris answered: “We do this.”