By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins should be savoring the moment. This spring, at the ripe age of 29, the playwright has catapulted to the American theater's top tier with two enormous critical successes in New York and a fast-growing list of prestigious commissions across the nation. So it's too bad the young author can't sit back and watch a single performance of An Octoroon, his hit play, now in its second extension at Soho Rep. That's because every night, Jacobs-Jenkins must don a giant rabbit costume, complete with perky ears and cottontail, and hop around the stage.
"It's been a funny spiritual journey for me," he says, cutting into a croque madame at a brunch spot near his Brooklyn home. "This might be the most well-received thing I've ever done, and I will never know what it's like. That's really crazy."
The calorific meal before him has to fuel him through both a Saturday matinee and an evening performance, and the affable, bespectacled writer seems slightly anxious. "Every time I go on, I feel like the hugest hack," he confesses. "At least the stuff I'm doing is sort of clownish, which I don't feel uncomfortable doing." (Still, he's definitely more bookworm than spotlight hugger.)
By turns forthright and full of giddy humor, Jacobs-Jenkins talks a mile a minute even on subjects like cultural theory. "I have a peripatetic mind," he says, apologizing.
His sideline as the production's mysterious bunny — more about that later — is not the only surprising thing about Jacobs-Jenkins's triumph. The dramatist makes bold conceptual choices in an institutional sector of the theater that doesn't exactly encourage them, and he offers them to audiences that don't always know how to receive them. His works to date have made playful, and deeply purposeful, use of blackface minstrelsy with both black and white performers, historical photographs of lynchings, jokes about slavery, and jars of human remains.
The playwright, who is African-American, does not deploy these loaded images and cultural forms casually or exclusively for shock value, as some might suspect. He uses them, instead, to trigger productive anxieties — about social psychology, American history, political responsibility, and about theater itself.
Jacobs-Jenkins's works can be as funny as they are unsettling, rejecting political orthodoxies and messing around with ontology. When most new American plays rearrange history or tackle social issues, authors tend to give audiences a compass so they're comfortable. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't instruct — an approach that shakes up spectators and sometimes the theater world. His characters are forced to reckon with troubling artifacts on stage, and the public sitting out front in the seats can be confounded, too.
Neighbors, his 2010 breakout production at the Public Theater, takes place in "a distorted present" and opens with the Confederate anthem "Dixie" in the background as the Crows family moves in, "hooting, hollering, joking." A mixed-race family next door divides, and then unravels, as its members react to the tap-dancing, melon-eating minstrel icons — Mammy, Zip Coon, Sambo, Jim, Topsy — suddenly sharing their college town. Although the script does not specify the ethnicity or gender of the actors playing the Crows, at the Public (directed by Niegel Smith) black performers did the roles in blackface. The drama deliberately navigates into these uncomfortable waters, using minstrelsy not just to confront audiences with racist perceptions past and present, but also to provide an actual experience of it.
Appropriate, which premiered at the Signature Theatre earlier this season, centers on an Arkansas family confronting a dead patriarch's past. At his plantation home, they discover evidence of horrifying racial violence: photos of lynch mobs, a hood, body parts.
The only characters are white, a choice Jacobs-Jenkins made early on. "Initially, I was interested in how invisible I could make blackness onstage and yet still have it charge the room," he says. As with some of his other plays, Appropriate watches characters look at something — a disturbing photograph, for instance — creating an emotionally fraught space for critical reflection between audience and narrative.
His second success this season is An Octoroon, a highly theatrical retelling of The Octoroon, Dion Boucicault's famous 1859 melodrama about a woman who finds her freedom in jeopardy when it is discovered that one-eighth of her blood is black. (The production, directed by Sarah Benson, closes June 8 but may return.) Early in the project's development, a media stir erupted: While devising a 2010 showing at Performance Space 122, the director quit, leaving Jacobs-Jenkins at the helm. (A frustrated actor's lambasting email to friends was leaked to the Voice, which published it online.) The incident was not a high point for anyone involved; the writer jokes that half the participants moved to Los Angeles afterward.
When Soho Rep. mounted a full production of An Octoroon this spring, the dramatist created a dizzying array of ironies. Actor Chris Myers portrays the playwright "BJJ," who praises, argues, and negotiates with the character Dion Boucicault, the original's dead author. Long sections play straight from the melodrama's electrifying narrative, which empathized with protagonists doomed by oppressive race laws, while simultaneously making depictions of slaves and Native Americans unacceptable to us today. Other sequences are re-authored, with characters speaking in 2014 colloquialisms and commenting on the old play. Cotton balls cover the stage floor. Actors in white, black, and red face paint alternate roles. Documentary photos are displayed, merging real and imagined narratives, until then blurs with now.