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.
That’s where the giant bunny comes in. “Everyone wants to know: What’s the deal with the rabbit?” says Jacobs-Jenkins brightly. In part, the furry fellow is an allusion to the fact that Joel Chandler Harris recorded the Br’er Rabbit/Uncle Remus folk tales in the same region of Louisiana where The Octoroon was set. “I thought, what an amazing coincidence that this black folkloric literature and this insane play sprouted in the same place,” he says. Plus, this particular cottontail has a distinctly Lewis Carroll-in-Wonderland look, suggesting what he calls “the rabbit-hole experience of the show.” The bottom line: Although the bunny sometimes acts like he’s stage-managing the performance for viewers, he’s ultimately a cipher, reminding us that we’re not watching a straightforward representational play. And Jacobs-Jenkins likes it that way.
A native of Washington, D.C., Jacobs-Jenkins fell for drama when he was in high school. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, he delved into theater history and began identifying dramatists who offered nourishing visions: Caryl Churchill (“she has literally created forms, turning ideas into experience”), Sam Shepard (“he unlocked something for me with off-off Broadway”), August Wilson (with whom he had “an Oedipal experience”), Tennessee Williams (“the spell that language can cast, moving through identificatory traps”), plus Adrienne Kennedy, LeRoi Jones, and…Euripides? “I love some Euripides!” he enthuses. “He also is writing about the strange thing that underlies difference.”
Unusually, perhaps, for an American playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins also draws inspiration from performance artists and experimental choreographers like Ralph Lemon: “I was always mystified by people who were able to do things to huge theaters that they had no business doing. But somebody gave them permission to transform the space into a mental playground that they would populate with their dramas,” he says.
After Princeton, he headed to New York University for an M.A. in performance studies. He found the avant-garde genealogies stimulating but gravitated away from an academic track. On the side, he experimented with making performance art in galleries, at experimental venues like Dixon Place, and in showcases such as Aunts and PS122’s Avant-Garde-Arama. “I would do these installation-y things where I would be a character in the world that I built, and sometimes I would be wearing blackface and sometimes I wouldn’t.” The performances were one-off events, sometimes created with Jacobs-Jenkins’s then-artistic partner Lydia Brawner.
“I sort of stopped finding myself interesting, or I stopped finding that relationship with an audience electrifying in the way that actors do,” he says. “In my grad-school days, I thought I was actually going to go into performance art. What I was doing was so academic. Narrative was something that I was intrigued by and loved, but it wasn’t something I felt comfortable using as a mode of expression.”
When he finally embraced writing for the stage, those gallery experiences led him to integrate performance spaces into a text’s layers and to come up with tactics to get audiences to notice how they watch things. Among the many forms he’d studied, minstrelsy resonated with the novice author because it was an indigenous American phenomenon that helped him understand the era. “What’s complicated about it is that there was a need or a desire [for minstrel players] to become an idea of blackness, to explore it for whatever reason. At the heart of it, there is something noble — obviously what was offensive about it was its reception and proliferation.”
Not everyone was ready to step back and accept a form so closely tied to an oppressive past. When Neighbors opened, Jacobs-Jenkins found himself on the defensive. “I was shocked that people were mad about the use of blackface. They were mad at the paint, which I didn’t understand: Paint is just paint,” he says. “It took me a while to get to a place of understanding with that. Part of what disturbs us about minstrelsy isn’t the face paint and isn’t someone putting the face paint on. It’s the idea that there was an audience [in the past] just like us, who were kind of unwittingly participating in something that we now receive as problematic. We can’t actually separate ourselves from those people safely. That’s why we clam up and get angry and want everything shut down.”
When An Octoroon opened at Soho Rep. earlier this month, however, there was no anguished debate, even though some white actors play black roles in blackface with Boucicault’s dialects and black actors play white characters in whiteface. Perhaps that’s because An Octoroon is so clearly a creative excavation of a canonical drama. Benson’s production takes pains to make representations on stage unstable (or, at least, complicated). Are we watching the original 19th-century race melodrama The Octoroon, or a contemporary retelling? Are we watching Dion Boucicault’s characters, or are we seeing them through the lens of an African-American writer today who’s responding to a work he sometimes honors and other times lampoons?
The uncertainties can disorient. “You laugh and then you have to think about your laughter for a second,” Jacobs-Jenkins says proudly.
He clearly has not exhausted these subjects. In fact, he’s just getting started. “These are gateway plays for me in opening up new thematic territory,” notes the author, who just finished a playwriting fellowship at the Juilliard School. War, his next work, will premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in the fall. It touches on the Cold War and the experience of black Americans living in Germany. Gloria, about work-life balance, New York, and journalists who “narrativize reality for consumption,” will open at the Vineyard Theatre in spring 2015. Jacobs-Jenkins is also scheduled to create a second production (of three) for Signature Theatre and a new work, Slaves, for Lincoln Center Theater. Meanwhile, film and television producers are approaching him with ideas.
As he vaults into this promising future, Jacobs-Jenkins is clutching to history — its rich array of forms and subjects. His approach, and his ravenous appetite for the hard questions, is a promising sign for stubbornly conservative American playhouses. “People are constantly saying that theater is a stupid or useless form, and it’s really old and still around, you know? I’m interested in what creates that longevity,” he says. “Maybe I just find a lot of solace in dead people who made moving things. But what is it about this form that keeps it alive?”
While waiting for answers, theater audiences might want to keep an eye on that odd rabbit wandering intently through An Octoroon, making everyone wonder what they’re really watching. The creature moves carefully between the production’s many layers, and, the playwright says with a sly grin, “it’s his show.”