Arts Desk

Invisibility Man: How Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Writes, and Doesn’t Write, About Race

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Some origin stories seem too good to be true. Like this one: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ parents met at an auction of memorabilia from America’s racially segregated history.

“Cookie jars shaped like Hattie McDaniel,” the 28-year-old playwright says. “Jim Crow posters. Signs that said ‘Colored Only.’”

The house where he grew up in Takoma was full of artifacts like these.

“I used to have dreams where mammies were chasing me,” Jacobs-Jenkins recalls, sitting in an upstairs office at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, two weeks before the first preview of his new play Appropriate. (It officially opens Friday night.) “But I didn’t think of them as mammies. I thought of them as dolls.”

America’s brutal history of racism informs all three of the full-length plays Jacobs-Jenkins has had produced. His “calling-card play,” the provocative Neighbors, opened at the Public Theatre in New York in early 2010. In it, a black family, the Crows—portrayed by black actors wearing blackface—perform the once-familiar, now-shocking gestures of minstrelsy: gags involving watermelons, outsized phalluses, and the like. The mixed-race family next door never notices there’s something odd about their neighbors’ appearance until their daughter kisses a boy in blackface and his facepaint rubs off.

“I had this brief life as a performance artist putting on these exploratory pieces in blackface,” usually in art-gallery settings, Jacobs-Jenkins says. “So I knew a lot about it.” Archetypes and stock characters had always fascinated him.

Neighbors was Jacobs-Jenkins’ attempt to shovel “everything that I was feeling, or that I wanted to see, or was annoyed by, into one play,” he reflects, more than three years after Charles Isherwood lambasted its “flame-throwing dramaturgy” in the New York Times. “I thought, ‘I’m going to cram everything about race into one play so I never have to deal with it again.’”

But guess what? He’s dealing with it again.

* * *

Appropriate premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., back in April. That show’s co-producer, Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, has its own run of Appropriate opening within days of Woolly’s. Jacobs-Jenkins has made substantial revisions, particularly to the play’s then-wobbly second half, since the spring. In fact, on the day we meet at Woolly, he’s still rewriting it. The process of transmitting in-progress changes to two concurrent productions—from D.C., he’ll move on to attend rehearsals in the Windy City—is “crazy-making,” he says. “I’ll never do it again.”

Where Neighbors repurposed the grotesquely caricatured, cruelly reductive image of “blackness” that prevailed on American stages of the 19th and early 20th century, Appropriate has no black characters at all. The play follows an estranged white family’s return to the Arkansas house where they grew up to dispose of the belongings of their recently deceased patriarch—which turn out to include some deeply troubling keepsakes. Their fractious conversation barely makes mention of race. But the subject is unmistakably the elephant in the room.

“I was like, ‘How invisible can I make it?’” Jacobs-Jenkins says.

ART_Jacobs_Jenkins-1The scenario emerged at least in part from Jacobs-Jenkins’ observation that black playwrights are expected, by virtue of their blackness, to issue sweeping statements about race and class—a burden their white colleagues can take on or cast off as they choose.

“I got called in for all these movie pitches after Neighbors,” he says. “I would just pitch things I was interested in: What about a Chekhov biopic? People would just give me blank stares.”

“Someone said to me, ‘I’m going to teach you how to do this. What was your favorite book in college?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know—Wuthering Heights?’ And he said, ‘How would you take Wuthering Heights and set it in Bed-Stuy?’

“I was like, ‘What? No. 1, I’m not from Bed-Stuy. And No. 2, you’re asking me to ‘black up’ a classic of literature? That’s crazy,’” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “So I was interested in thwarting that challenge in some way. Why is it that no one seems to trust me with a story that isn’t literally a cliché of what they think a black person should be writing?”

Speaking from his office in Kentucky, Les Waters, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, recalls what led him to choose Appropriate for the Humana Festival, perhaps the nation’s highest-profile showcase for new plays. “Ferocious emotional intelligence, and the sheer energy of the writing,” he says. He’d already read and liked Neighbors when the Sundance Theatre Lab sent him a draft of Appropriate last year. Jacobs-Jenkins “has the ability to surprise an audience,” Waters says. Plus, “he’s a very funny writer.”

He’s talking specifically about Appropriate when he accidentally puts his finger on the something very near to Jacobs-Jenkins’ current coordinates as an artist.

“I think all of us are interested in this idea of, ‘Can you escape your family history?’” Waters says. “Can we ever make a break with it?”

* * *

Jacobs-Jenkins’ background is, by any measure, one of privilege and accomplishment. He graduated from St. John’s College High School (“half military, half Catholic”) as valedictorian as the class of 2002, proceeded to Princeton University for undergrad with an internship at the New Yorker, then New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

The playwright’s mother, Patricia Jacobs, was one of the first black women to graduate from Harvard Law School. His father spent his career as a dentist working in the Maryland prison system. Neither were regular theatergoers when he was growing up. He doesn’t know what prompted them to take him to Studio Theatre’s 1998 production of Waiting for Godot when he was 14, but the show made a deep impression.

“I have this vivid memory of Lucky’s monologue, and just being completely confused and confounded and interested in it,” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “I remember Vladimir peeing onstage and being like, ‘Is he actually peeing?’ I remember the rope effect; how they made it so his neck looked like it was bleeding because it’d been rubbed raw by the rope.”

And his parents? “I don’t think they knew what it was about,” Jacobs-Jenkins laughs. “I didn’t either, but they were deeply bored and miserable.”

(Jacobs-Jenkins’ parents weren’t the only ones who didn’t care for that Godot. The estate of Samuel Beckett actually attempted to shut down the Joy Zinoman-directed production, which flaunted the playwright’s instructions by casting African-American actors as the two leads and, said the New York Times, allowed “the kinds of improvisations that would have driven Beckett up the wall.”)

In the program, Jacobs-Jenkins recognized the name of an understudy as a boy he’d known in grade school. “I thought, if he can do it,” he remembers. He started auditioning for high school plays, snagging parts in Grease and Pippin, among others.

“I played the singing slave [Pseudolus] in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. My parents still joke that I ended my [high school] acting career playing a slave.”

Jacobs-Jenkins wanted to go to New York right after graduation, but 9/11 happened his senior year. “My parents got a little freaked out,” he says. He applied to Princeton at his mom’s insistence, unaware of the university’s creative writing curriculum. “I only knew Princeton because that’s where cousin Carlton wanted to go on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

As an undergrad, Jacobs-Jenkins kept acting for a while, but grew tired of being “conceptually cast,” as he puts it. “I was in Six Degrees of Separation, but I wasn’t playing Paul. I was playing the white South Afrikaner because they couldn’t find an actual Afrikaner. So they thought it would be interesting to cast a black guy.”

Jacobs-Jenkins majored in anthropology. “I was very specific,” he says. “I was like, ‘I want to be a historical anthropologist who would occasionally write these long-form essays or whatever.’” But he was obsessed with short fiction, citing writers of several different generations: Junot Díaz, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor.

Jacobs-Jenkins took all the creative writing classes he could, churning out fiction about “things I shouldn’t have been writing about,” he says. “People dealing with their husband’s multiple sclerosis. Bad New Yorker stories.” When Princeton told him he couldn’t take any more creative writing classes, he signed up for playwriting.

“I could feel people paying attention, leaning forward,” as his scenes were read aloud in class. His prose had never gotten a response like that.

Jacobs-Jenkins was working on his master’s degree in performance studies at Tisch when he started writing Neighbors in the winter of 2007. By the time he finished it the following year, a chance encounter with one of his old New Yorker bosses in a subway tunnel had led to a coveted editorial post in the magazine’s fiction department. (He counts Téa Obreht, whose debut novel The Tiger’s Wife was a National Book Award finalist in 2011, as his one big discovery during his tenure at the magazine.)

“I didn’t ever think it was going to get done,” Jacobs-Jenkins says of Neighbors. But producers’ and theater companies’ interest in the play started to pick up after the election of Barack Obama that November.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ next project opened mere months after Neighbors. It was an update of The Octoroon by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. The original, about a love affair between a white man and a slave who is one-eighth black, was a controversial hit when it premiered in 1859. “It’s quite meta, quite experimental for the time,” he says. “[Boucicault] took melodrama as a form and messed with it by making his subject race.”

Jacobs-Jenkins gave his version the title The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroon. When Irish director Gavin Quinn left the production over creative differences shortly before the show’s June 2010 opening at Performance Space 122, Jacobs-Jenkins stepped in. “It sort of imploded,” he says.

Jacobs-Jenkins is grateful the play will have a second chance. His friend Sarah Benson will direct a new production—now simply called An Octoroon—at Soho Rep next spring. “I’m quite obsessed with this play. I love it,” he says.

Because An Octoroon is set on a Louisiana plantation in 1859, I ask if he’s seen 12 Years a Slave, British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 19th century memoir, which shares the setting and the period. It turns out our interview preempted his plan to see the movie that very evening. So he asks what I thought of it.

I reply that it was so powerful that I felt a strange hyper-awareness of the audience around me. And that some people in the theater laughed through the film’s most brutal scenes—a hoarse laughter of discomfort, not amusement. His eyes get big as I tell him this.

“Oh God,” he exclaims. “That’s my dream. That’s my dream!”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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