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Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins – whose play Appropriate has just opened at the STC – takes the tropes of white playwriting and turns them into Black comedy. By Ben Neutze .

American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Credit: Imogen Heath

Thirty minutes before I’m due to talk to American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on Zoom, the Sydney Theatre Company announces it’s permitted to play at 100 per cent capacity following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. It’s a pivotal moment, as Australia’s bruised performing arts sector emerges from a disastrous 12 months.

When I break the news to Jacobs-Jenkins that the STC production of Appropriate will be one of the first to play again to a full house, he’s visibly shocked.

“I can’t even see it,” he says with disbelief. “I don’t quite know how to feel.”

It’s been a year of upheaval for everybody working in the arts, including Jacobs-Jenkins. In March 2020, the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Grant”, was living in New York, spending four nights a week watching theatre as a Tony Awards voter. Then New York became an epicentre of the Covid-19 crisis and theatres suddenly closed.

In late May and for much of June, some of the world’s most widely reported Black Lives Matter protests unfolded on Jacobs-Jenkins’ doorstep; a widely shared video of a police car ramming into a crowd of protesters, viewed tens of millions of times, was filmed just around the corner from his Brooklyn home.

Not long afterwards, Jacobs-Jenkins, 36, moved across the country to teach at the University of Texas in Austin. Picking up and leaving New York was an easy decision. “There was a lot of theatre that wasn’t very vigorous or thoughtful,” he says of the period leading up to New York’s shutdown. “And it’s been truly freeing to see so much of the country.”

He lived in the key battleground state of Texas during the most tumultuous United States presidential election in living memory, and then moved again to Seattle on America’s west coast, where he and his partner welcomed their first child a little over a month ago.

It’s appropriate that Jacobs-Jenkins should find himself bearing witness to some of America’s most transformative moments of 2020. His work unpacks the country’s many dichotomies: its centring of whiteness and its extraordinary ethnic diversity; its championing of free speech and its unwillingness to speak freely about its past; its promise of freedom and its history of slavery. And he does it as well as any playwright to emerge in the past decade.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2013 play Appropriate takes one of America’s favourite theatrical genres, imbues it with new meaning and makes it zing with freshness.

“The family drama is the form of tragedy that Americans perfected best,” he says. “I grew up loving them unequivocally. I love Tennessee Williams, I’ve read everything he’s ever written and I cite him in my pantheon often. I remember the first time I read Long Day’s Journey into Night, I was blown away. I taught an entire class on Arthur Miller. Those plays are just sort of the weather over here.”

Appropriate starts with a familiar premise: three white siblings find themselves reunited at their family home – a formerly lavish and profitable Southern plantation – following the death of their patriarch. Tensions arise as they struggle to reconcile their past and figure out what they can bring with them into the future. Uncomfortable secrets are revealed.

The play germinated when Jacobs-Jenkins noticed the critical sensation around Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the reunion of a white American family. Jacobs-Jenkins read every imaginable play about American families and compiled his favourite ideas and devices into a document, in an attempt to work out how he could make the American family drama sing for his own purposes.

“I spent the next couple of years trying to turn that kind of rubbish heap into its own thing,” he says. “I felt like I was massaging with kale or something.”

The result is a play that’s somehow both a perfect example of the white American family drama – director of the STC production Wesley Enoch says you can play a kind of “theatrical bingo” spotting the references – and a subversion, as Jacobs-Jenkins mines the genre and pushes it as far as it can go. It’s bitingly funny but also a deadly serious portrayal of a white family trying to live with itself.

“I wrote this play before people were, you know, acknowledging that they were white,” he says. “It was part of what made the show so provocative for people. The idea of white fragility wasn’t a term that we threw around. People thought I was insane. They knew that I was doing something kind of crazy, but no one had the vocabulary to talk about it.”

 

Jacobs-Jenkins broke into the world of playwriting with two plays that wore their politics on their sleeves. Neighbors concerns a high-flying Black academic who finds his world shaken when a group of minstrel performers in blackface move in next door; An Octoroon is a freewheeling and wildly funny adaptation of a mid-19th century melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault set on a plantation, featuring a young octoroon – a person with one-eighth African ancestry – who faces the threat of being sold as a slave.

Jacobs-Jenkins credits his education as a significant influence on how he brings disparate influences crashing together. Born in Washington, DC, je attended a predominantly Black elementary school, where African–American culture, history and literature were centred. He then went to a culturally diverse secondary school, where he learnt how to perform the expectations that came with his identity. He eventually ended up studying at a series of mainly white universities.

Jacobs-Jenkins says that process of “emerging into whiteness” helped him to see America’s social layers from a unique perspective and question the assumptions underlying that structure. “Something is happening here that’s not normal, but it’s pretending to be normal,” he says. “But I found I couldn’t get people to talk or acknowledge the elephant in the room, so I had to make the elephant.”

After studying to become a fiction writer, and a stint working on the fiction desk at the The New Yorker, Jacobs-Jenkins turned to playwriting. He’d taken a class in the hope that it might improve his dialogue, and found a way of expression that came easily and with greater joy.

After Neighbors and An Octoroon, Appropriate seemed an unusual pivot. There are no Black characters or actors on stage – just a white family dealing with its internal conflicts. Significant political questions inevitably arise, but Jacobs-Jenkins contends that if Appropriate were by a white writer, it would never be considered a political play or a piece about race.

“I felt like [Appropriate] was about trying to ‘out’ something in the culture. There was a double standard being placed on writers. In some ways it was an experiment for me; for all these theatres patting themselves on the back for their liberal politics, those are some of the most discriminatory institutions in the culture.

“I’m telling you, I took everything in that play from something else. So nothing that I’m doing hasn’t been done before by a white writer. It just, in my hand, became a statement on race.”

Jacobs-Jenkins pleaded with theatre companies to market Appropriate “just like August: Osage County”. “The point I was trying to make was like: these plays, August: Osage County, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey into Night, these plays are all about race. They’re actually all about whiteness. They all have characters of colour in them that are putting that family in security and tension … Every theatre freaked out. They refused. They could not figure out how to market this.”

One producer even proposed a poster featuring Jacobs-Jenkins holding a model of a plantation in his hand. “I was like: why am I in this picture? I’m not in the play. It was just weird. I could feel very concretely how my being Black was a problem that people had to get around.”

He says that he deliberately tried to make the play ambiguous. “Family stories are ultimately about how unknowable family is. There’s always a generation leaving with some secrets as a new generation is emerging and building their own.”

Sydney audiences are well-versed in the plays Appropriate riffs upon. They’ll likely revel in its wicked humour, but will its less comfortable aspects strike a deeper chord? “The play has a harmonic in it; there’s several notes all being played at the same time, and when you hit it right, all of them are possible,” says Wesley Enoch. “He’s made a show that asks for an all-white cast, then figuratively – and literally in the play – has the Blackfellas buried in the backyard. But everything about this history keeps permeating through these characters.”

This isn’t the first time Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays have been seen in Australia; Gloria has had productions in Melbourne and Sydney, and An Octoroon was adapted by playwright and director Nakkiah Lui at Queensland Theatre in 2017, moving the action from America’s deep south to Far North Queensland. Jacobs-Jenkins says he’s usually firmly against directors changing his work, but that he felt a kinship with Lui’s own work, which uses a disarming sense of humour to raise similar provocations.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ more recent work has that trademark humour, but feels more allegorical in its preoccupations. His two Pulitzer-nominated works couldn’t be more different: Gloria (2015) takes place in the offices of a high-profile magazine in New York, while Everybody (2017) is a gentle, funny and deeply moving adaptation of the 15th-century morality play Everyman, and covers just about everything, including life, death and love.

He’s currently working on two plays: one springing from the work of Walt Whitman and another that’s “in conversation” with Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. It was also recently announced that he’s adapting Octavia E. Butler’s sci-fi novel exploring America’s history of slavery, Kindred, for television. “I’m also writing more over this last year in this weird, fat notebook than will ever see the light of day,” he says. “But maybe something is cooking there.”

Given the breadth of projects he’s currently working on and has seen to completion over the past decade, I ask Jacobs-Jenkins if he’s still grappling with the same questions at the centre of his early work. An Octoroon, for example, features a playwright named BJJ who declares he’s a “Black playwright” but doesn’t know exactly what that means.

“I’m definitely not grappling in the same way,” he says. “With An Octoroon, I was trying to get to the bottom of why any time I was written about critically, my race was mentioned within four words of my name. I don’t walk around in my life going, ‘I’m a Black playwright,’ I didn’t walk around as a kid going, ‘I want to grow up to be a Black playwright,’ I grew up saying, ‘I want to be a playwright.’ ”

But he points towards a recent explosion of writing in America by non-white writers. He tells me that four of the past five winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama were people of colour – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lynn Nottage, Jackie Sibblies Drury and Michael R. Jackson.

“What if the best writing happening in America right now is by people of colour? What does that mean?” he asks. “Once everyone started cottoning on to this shift, there were like five special issues of various magazines within two months of each other about ‘the explosion in Black writing’. It was like, ‘No guys, it’s a shift in American writing.’ It’s very influential work, very rigorous work, and yet there’s still a resistance in the critical spheres to accept that as American work.”

Jacobs-Jenkins says he has little to complain about in his own career. “But I do worry about my students. You sort of want to think you’re leaving each room nicer than you got to it, and it would just break my heart to know somebody 20 years younger than me might have to write the same play; another Octoroon.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Family drama".

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Ben Neutze is a writer and arts worker living on Gadigal land.