The following is an excerpt of an interview from The Yale Review’s Fall 2021 issue. To read the full interview text, buy this issue here.
The playwright on the politics of theaterMarc Robinson
The following interview with playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is taken from a virtual event hosted on November 12, 2020, by the Yale English Department and moderated by Marc Robinson, a professor at the Yale School of Drama. (Robinson also teaches in the English, Theater and Performance Studies, and American Studies departments at Yale.) The interview has been condensed and edited, and includes an introduction by Robinson to Jacobs-Jenkins’s relentlessly inventive, keenly analytical, and often visionary dramaturgical work.
those of you who know Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, his version of the morality play Everyman, will recall the title character’s definition of death: “Just a matter of taking a trip and giving some sort of presentation,” one meant to address “how I’ve lived my life and why.” To an extent, all of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays put everybody—lowercase “e”—in the position of having to take stock of their own choices, and more often their compromises, their failures to choose. But his characters also confront how life has lived them, so to speak—how they have been shaped and misshaped: by media and celebrity in his play Gloria; by the legacy of war in War; by cultures of belief and the cult of masculinity in Girls; and always, through it all, by the history of racism. As a materialist, Jacobs-Jenkins engages that history through its objects and procedures, its often excruciatingly intimate traces and gestures of oppression. In his most searing plays—Neighbors, Appropriate, and, of course, An Octoroon (an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon)—he maps its rotting spaces, catalogues its fetishes and artifacts, and scripts its occasions of performance.
As he does so, we find ourselves, or should find ourselves, in Everybody’s position: submitting ourselves to judgment. What are the ethics and morality of our own spectatorship when suffering is so easily condensed into images, commodified and spectacularized? A scene in An Octoroon makes the point deftly as two men talking about a projected photograph of a lynching use different verbs to charge us with different obligations. At first, the character known as “Playwright” says he hopes to make his audience “think”; later, he asks us more sharply to “witness.” At the end of the scene, another character says, “The point of this whole thing was to make you feel something.”
Jacobs-Jenkins is always meditating on artistic form, on the work that performance can do regardless of his ostensible subject. To read or see his plays one after another—plays for which he has won Obie awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Windham-Campbell award, and a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist—is to participate in a seminar on theater history and American history, on the ways that remote or seemingly exhausted genres continue to haunt our culture.
marc robinson A number of your plays work variations on melodrama, minstrelsy, the morality play, or tragedy. In an interview about Appropriate, you once said, “I would steal something from every play that I liked and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.” Would you speak about your relationship to precedent, to different genres and forms, and about adaptation in general?
branden jacobs-jenkins My initial training was a little highfalutin: I studied the intersection of anthropology and performance studies. The teachers I gravitated toward at Princeton, where I got my BA, all seemed to teach from this notion that we’re trapped in the world of symbols and our lives are made out of preexisting codes of seeing and meaning. I was always interested in how the very simple act of storytelling has managed to find itself dressed up again and again in these things we call genres. I just loved studying those moments in history when new genres are “born,” and how those genres ultimately shape general viewing patterns. I’ve always said that race— let’s say race in America—has been from the beginning this gigantic theatrical game: a game of genre and codes of prejudice, ultimately. I guess genre is another, less loaded word for a system of prejudices.
When I was beginning, I was trying to diagnose weird prejudices that seemed to exist before I entered the room or did anything, including things like minstrelsy and the “well-made play” and the “American family drama.” I was always asking myself, What is American drama? What is American about American drama? What is dramatic about American drama?
I’ve struggled with how to talk about adaptation because I’ve always believed that on some level, adaptation is at the root of all dramatic storytelling. It’s re-presenting something. Communal reception is predicated on the preexistence of a shared public language. I often look back to the Greeks, who were continually adapting stories—stories received as history by their community. Then Shakespeare, of course, was the most genius adapter of all time; he found a way to synthesize his adaptations of many different sources into a new, even more compelling whole.
So I’ve always recognized the adaptive impulse as uniquely the provenance of the dramatic writer. Teaching adaptation for the past few years has forced me to clarify a lot of my ideas and thoughts around it, and I find myself these days citing a lot of Walter Benjamin, specifically his ideas about translation. Adaptation, for me, is a form of translation. You’re moving something from one form or language into your own language, or your own experience of life, or your own set of social codes, and the task is not necessarily to create a carbon copy of the work but to refresh the language you’re working within, creating a kind of echo of the original work. So if theater is about the exploitation of visual codes to get at something about human behavior, adaptation is about refreshing the languages of seeing.
Someone asked me yesterday why I bothered to adapt Everyman. Because the text is in Middle English, we often lose sight of the fact that it was made by theater artists who believed they were speaking to a group of people about something important. So my challenge became almost an archaeology of seeing: I wanted to re-create the spirit of that play in a contemporary theater-viewing context.
I’ve always said that race—let’s say race in America—has been from the beginning this gigantic theatrical game: a game of genre and codes of prejudice, ultimately.
mr Can you say more about how you use visual language and visual codes as points of entry into these earlier plays?
bj-j The writer and performer Wallace Shawn suggested once that one of the traps for prose writers who become playwrights is that they fall in love with the rhetoric of a beautifully wrought passage of prose, and then are upset to learn that sometimes the most effective thing on a stage is someone just saying “no.”
In other words, theater is a different way of receiving information; though playwriting is a literary medium, theatrical language is supposed to initiate a different chain of reactions because it has to end in a person doing something in front of us. Theater is about the body. It’s about what you hear and see. It’s about how comfortable you feel in your seat, and how long you’re sitting in that seat. I’m always teaching my students to be sensitive to themselves as embodied receivers of sensory information.
I’m also someone who’s very involved in design. The minute someone says yes to a production, I’m assembling the design team. I love designers more than almost anybody in the theater—please don’t tell any directors that. I find that I’m very excited by some designers’ dramaturgical abilities to heighten or create an emotion that even I didn’t see. I’m also influenced by a lot of ideas about space. One of the most important classes I took in grad school at NYU was an architectural theory class, where I learned how architecture can create unarticulated emotional states for an audience.
I often feel that among my cohort there’s a real struggle to write to scale, because so many of us cut our teeth in ninety-seat black box basement spaces. This education lends itself to fine-grained realism; being so physically close to an actor necessitates that the actor deliver a highly detailed performance. In a larger space, something’s missing, deadened. I think not enough attention is given to the technical differences between writing for black box and writing for proscenium theater.
My cohort was defined, I think, by the popularization of the concept of the “emerging playwright,” and also by the invention of the “third space”: smaller-scale stages for experimental theater. (Within a brief period in the late 2000s, the Public Theater initiated the Public Lab, Roundabout Theater created Roundabout Underground out of a storage room in its basement, Lincoln Center opened LCT3, etc.) It was a phenomenon of architecture and of funding. There was pressure on us to write for these spaces, which is where many young artists were expected to make their entrée into the broader field.
Around this time, there was also an explosion of “emerging writers groups” at places like Soho Rep, the Public Theater, and Ars Nova. We were all looking for community, so we all applied. In one group, I met Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Samuel Hunter, Matthew Lopez, Kristoffer Diaz, Steven Levenson. We were all in the same room, experimenting and bringing in new work. I once heard André Bishop say something along the lines of, “We’re living in a golden age of American playwriting.” In retrospect, I think that was kind of true. We were all reading and seeing each other’s work all the time and trafficking, albeit without much self-consciousness about it, in the same aesthetic conversations; we were all saying things to or about each other through the work.
I became obsessed with this idea of the illusion of suffering. Why is it that we crave an illusion of suffering but look away from actual suffering?
mr Your thoughts about bodies doing things in spaces help me understand your relationship to stage directions, which fascinate me every time I read your work. You once said you were interested in the “life of the script.” Can you say more about the aspects of the printed text that are not available to spectators—stage directions among them?
bj-j My perverse relationship to stage directions began with my encountering Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, artists who can actually be quite demanding and eccentric in their work, despite their almost overrepresentation in the canon. A lot of my experience of falling in love with them was reading the language and sensing the authority they assumed over the reading experience, and the faith that it could translate into an ideal performance experience. After all, the script is actually the most policed thing, not the performance. The script has to pass through so many hands and convince so many people in order to achieve its fullest iteration.
In my play Neighbors, I knew I needed a space that allowed the reader to feel comfortable enough to say yes. So in the stage directions, I assume a persona that is trying to hold the reader’s hand, as if to say, “It’s okay. We’re going to get through to the end. This is super weird. Just keep moving.” The authorial voice in An Octoroon is a little less patient or caring; there’s a kind of flippancy to it. One of the most quoted things I’ve ever written is a stage direction in An Octoroon, which goes, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”
In 2011, when I was working on Appropriate and living in Berlin, I began for the first time to understand how much language is tied to our feelings of self-esteem and agency. I could get on fine in German, but I also realized that so much of my sense of confidence and self-possession was rooted in my facility with the English language. Somehow, almost to remind myself that I wasn’t a tongue-tied borderline illiterate, I started rereading a lot of “difficult” American writers, like William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and wondering more deeply about the power of rhetoric and the limits of what a theatrical representation can ultimately accomplish. All three of the plays from that period—An Octoroon, Neighbors, and Appropriate—are about rejecting narratives that claim to be “about race,” or “about Blackness.” They’re more about revealing and testing the values of the people who show up to watch.
The last few plays I’ve written have been relatively, almost actively, sparse in their stage directions; they’re more spare and free about the physical life of the illusion they’re building. In Everybody, I refused to dictate too much about the material world, because that felt in keeping with the pleasures of the original piece. With Gloria, I realized that it became unwieldy in a rehearsal room to add too much in the way of complicated stage directions, because there are already so many technical restraints the actors are juggling with the double casting, etc.
Oddly, when you’re looking for an authorial voice, the first place you go in a play is the stage directions. Think of the lines in The Glass Menagerie where Tennessee Williams says, “Memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” Those words give a sense of the lyrical aura of the world he’s building. You even get this in O’Neill, when you look at Strange Interlude or Long Day’s Journey into Night. In Hughie, you really sense that O’Neill believes writerly control is the key to a successful dramatic venture.