Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins speaks to Tom Wicker about mourning Toni Morrison, his love for London and how his play Appropriate – being staged at the Donmar – has become more relevant post-Trump
US writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is devastated. The day we meet he has been deep in rehearsals for Appropriate, which is having its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse this month, and until breaking for our interview he had no idea that the celebrated novelist, essayist and editor Toni Morrison had died.
Morrison has been a huge influence on Jacobs-Jenkins. “She wasn’t just one of the best novelists in history,” he says. “She also did a lot of work to architect and open up a space for other people to step into a room with confidence in their work.”
The fact that Morrison had been an editor at the New Yorker Magazine is, he says, why he initially went to work in the publication’s fiction department where he stayed three years before focusing on playwriting.
Before that, he graduated from Princeton University in 2006 with a degree in anthropology and a minor in theatre studies. He then completed a Master’s in performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and graduated from Juilliard School’s playwriting programme.
Jacobs-Jenkins, now 34, has had six plays staged since his debut Neighbours played Off-Broadway in 2010. Two of these, Gloria – which debuted in the UK at Hampstead Theatre in London last year – and Everybody, were Pulitzer Prize finalists in 2016 and 2018.
The legacy of writers like Morrison is why Jacobs-Jenkins is circumspect about “this talk around now, about an ‘explosion’ of black drama happening”. He says: “It posits that you’re the first generation ever to break through, which is not true. It also creates a tendency to compare people or to foster an atmosphere of competition, as if we’re all somehow racing to be the blackest black writer ever to black in writing.”
It’s actually about networks of generations coming up together and insisting on varied voices, he says, adding he hates it when people talk about a play representing “the black experience”. The only way to even approach that idea, Jacobs-Jenkins adds, is “if you read every black writer, watch every black play – not just one play at the Donmar”.
These are turbulent times – on both sides of the Atlantic – and which stories make it to the stage and who tells them has become hugely contentious. This was recently seen in the UK in the furious reaction to Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, being adapted for the National Theatre by Helen Edmondson, a white woman, and directed by Rufus Norris.
Jacobs-Jenkins is acutely aware of institutional biases. But he’s uneasy about how far a “cancel and complain culture” gets us. He points out that Levy had asked Edmondson to adapt Small Island shortly before she died. “What were they supposed to do?” he asks. “Ignore her wishes? Have a séance and see what she’d say now?” He fears it’s easier to scapegoat someone than to “sit down and discuss what the systemic features are that we can actually pull apart”.
He also thinks that, in today’s charged atmosphere, many who programme theatres are afraid to have an open conversation about their decisions. “If people were willing to engage with their critics, we might break through this moment into another way to articulate, write and think about difference,” he says. “Instead, everyone’s getting afraid and saying: ‘Okay, I’ll write about me and you write about you.’ And that’s not what the space of theatre is.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I had an amazing work-study job in college. I was an assistant in the Russian and Slavic languages department. I didn’t speak a word of Russian or understand the Cyrillic alphabet, so I did simple work. I had an incredibly cool boss who’d smoke cigarettes with me. She was from New Jersey and married a guy in a band. She came and saw me in a few shows. The job was so far from what I wanted that it felt freeing.
What was your first theatre job?
There was a brief period where I thought I’d be a performance artist. I did these strange solo pieces in performance contexts. The first gig I had was at Performance Space 122, in New York. I would do a monologue about being 23 and angsty while drinking water from a goldfish bowl with a fish in it. I then threw up the water and saved the fish from drowning. I got $200 for that gig. This was before I decided to write plays.
What’s your next job?
I’m working on a play for Nick Hytner and Nick Starr at London’s Bridge Theatre. Right now, it’s called Incidents. It used to be called Slaves and might be again. It’s about making a movie about slaves.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
I got the right advice from Mark Ravenhill, in the nick of time. I met him when I was 26 and I’ve held what he told me to my heart: “It’s stupid for you to expect good reviews. What you’re critiquing is a thing they, in part, create and sustain. So, wanting them to love you is ridiculous.”
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Toni Morrison – I can’t believe she’s dead – and Caryl Churchill. Also, Tennessee Williams and Kander and Ebb… Chicago and Cabaret were the first shows to teach me what form was – that you could play with genre.
What’s your best advice for writers starting out?
Just because you’ve self-expressed, don’t expect that necessarily means that what you’ve made is art that needs to be purchased by a stranger. Also, there are people who rail against the machine who make it seem like the machine didn’t bring them there in the first place. Something brought you here, so find that and honour it. Also, as an adjunct, read everything – even if you hate it. That’s the secret.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
Every few weeks, I think: ‘I should have gone to law school.’ I think I would have liked it. I like anything that involves history and how it affects the present, which is all law is. It’s all a set of precedents.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Handwriting is the way I get through a knot. If I get stuck, I’ll stop typing and start writing out what I’ve done, to find a new way in. I also have weird production rituals. I miss the first few days of tech and I don’t sit in on the previews that critics are at.
Jacobs-Jenkins is acutely aware of the hypocrisies and biases embedded into conversations around what makes ‘great’ art, which is defined according to its gatekeepers. From critics to theatre programmers, when he started writing Appropriate these “tended to be older, white dudes”.
Appropriate arose from the same “coming to consciousness about the double-standard applied to minority writers” that prompted him to write Neighbourhood in 2010. That play used the racist stereotypes of blackface and minstrel shows to criticise liberal complacency and respond to “feeling like [as a writer of colour] I was being asked to make something my colleagues weren’t,” he says.
It partly arose from an initially critical reaction to Neighbourhood that treated Jacobs-Jenkins like “I didn’t know what I was doing – that I was being poorly behaved,” he says. “So, I was curious about what the opposite of that was to these people.”
He had noticed how fellow US writer Tracy Letts’ play, August: Osage County, had been hailed in 2007 by publications such as the New York Times as one of the great American family dramas – including its melodramatic aspects. But a review “literally by the same person, next to Tracy’s,” had criticised another Broadway play, by Lydia Diamond, a writer of colour, for having “too much melodrama and not enough about race and class”.
Jacobs-Jenkins decided to write Appropriate fuelled by his perception of the race-based expectations of critics and that, “somehow, the ‘US family drama’ was the mountain that all American playwrights must climb to prove their salt”. He quickly discovered many plays by black writers that were family dramas but had been pushed to the margins by critics as about “the black experience”. Yet, Jacobs-Jenkins notes drily, no one was “talking about those other plays as being about ‘the white experience’”.
So, “stealing from every single, hallowed, American family drama I could find,” Jacobs-Jenkins wrote Appropriate from that perspective. The play pivots on the dual meaning of the word ‘appropriate’ as a liberal white American family, the Lafayettes, make an outlook-shaking discovery about their late father’s attitudes and past while selling his house in Arkansas.
Appropriate opened Off-Broadway in spring 2014, at Signature Theatre where Jacobs-Jenkins is an artist in residence – and won him a joint Obie award for best new American play that year.
His play An Octoroon – which “poured out” from a similar place to Appropriate and Neighbourhood he says – opened Off-Broadway at the same time. In it, he deftly adapts and deconstructs white writer Dion Boucicault’s dated anti-slavery play of 1859, putting it back on stage in a new form, using whiteface. It imaginatively and powerfully plays with audience preconceptions and debuted to great acclaim in London in 2017 at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond before transferring to the National Theatre.
Post-Trump, when white privilege and deep-set racist attitudes have been laid bare, Appropriate feels almost like a history play, says Jacobs-Jenkins. But, he says, the current climate has also sharpened its point. “Before, people were like: ‘You hate white people and the play is about how everyone is racist.’” But it was never about the ‘revelation’ of racism. “It’s more obsessed with how the kids process the possibility that they might live in proximity to racial violence.”
Jacobs-Jenkins has relished working with the cast assembled for director Ola Ince’s staging of Appropriate for the Donmar, particularly Monica Dolan. “It has been amazing,” he says. “She’s the kind of actress I love. Her techniques are so honed.” Does he get this involved with every revival of his work? He will, he says, for productions of plays he cares about. “And I fricking love London.”
Up next for Jacobs-Jenkins is a contemporary take on Euripides’ Greek tragedy The Bacchae, entitled Girls, which will premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre later this year. Tackling the structures of Greek drama is another example of his fascination with the rules of theatre – whether in the plays of a writer such as Boucicault or in a genre such as family drama.
It exasperates him when students he teaches playwriting to reject traditional theatre forms without seeking to understand how they work. “I’m obsessed with, like, why is this a good play?” Otherwise, he says, you’re only pretending to make choices. “Maybe, there’s something there and I have to go through a period of confusion and pain to get to what that is.”
Born: Washington DC, 1984
Training: Studied anthropology with a minor in theatre at Princeton University; Master’s in performance studies at New York University; Juilliard School Playwriting Programme
• An Octoroon (2014)
• Appropriate (2014)
• Gloria (2015)
• Everybody (2017)
• Sundance Institute’s Tennessee Williams Award (2013)
• An Octoroon and Appropriate won a joint Obie Award for best new American play (2014)
• MacArthur Fellowship (2016)
• The Charles Wintour award for most promising playwright at the Evening Standard Awards (2017)
Appropriate is at London’s Donmar Warehouse until October 5, 2019