By Brian Robin
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Takes the Country By Storm
SCR Artistic Director David Ivers calls Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “arguably one of the most important playwrights currently in the country.” Michael Billington, the theatre critic for The Guardian, called him “a subversive writer.” And Les Waters, the former artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which debuted Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate in 2014, described his writing as “very funny.”
Now, contrast that with how Jacobs-Jenkins describes his subject matter.
“The stuff I write about doesn’t, like, necessarily leave people feeling warm and fuzzy,” he told one interviewer. “I’m writing in a territory that’s contested and full of prickliness.”
This apt description applies to his play, Appropriate, which runs Jan. 28-Feb. 26 on the Segerstrom Stage as part of Voices of America. Appropriate alternates performances with The Little Foxes, with the two plays sharing the same modified set and featuring overlapping casts. Six of the 12 cast members appear in both plays.
Being on a double-bill is a first for Appropriate, the Obie Award-winning play that the New York Times called “a very fine, subversively original new play” upon its 2014 opening. Billington in The Guardian described it as “gravely serious and mordantly funny.”
That’s the genius of Jacobs-Jenkins, one reason why he’s one of the hottest playwrights in the country. Not to mention highly decorated. Appropriate won the Obie Award for Best New American Play of 2014-15. So did An Octoroon. Everybody was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. So was Gloria.
Individually, he also received the Steinberg Playwriting Award, the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright from the London Evening Standard, the Windham-Campbell Prize for Drama, the Benjamin H. Danks Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award, the USA Artists and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships, and—for good measure—a MacArthur Genius Fellowship.
“Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings,” read the MacArthur Foundation notes announcing the prize.
“We now have him under commission,” Ivers said. “Appropriate is extraordinary dramaturgically and theatrically, with characters and narrative deeply rooted to the experiences of this country.”
Waters said what attracted him to Appropriate was the play’s “ferocious emotional intelligence and the sheer energy of the writing.”
That energy crackles. Appropriate’s characters leap off the page, bringing with them myriad character flaws that defy you to look away. You’re watching the dysfunctional Lafayette family melt down before your eyes. But true to the bumper sticker cliché’ Jacobs-Jenkins puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” doing so with a dry wit that catches you off-guard at just the right time.
Every Lafayette comes with plenty of baggage that unpacks before your eyes. But the unpacking comes in a clear, defined manner.
“Family dramas are tough, as a playwright,” Jacobs-Jenkins told an interviewer. “Most stories are about characters going on a trip or a new character coming to town, because that’s how you learn information about them. But with family, they all know each other already. There’s years of history in every interaction.”
Jacobs-Jenkins’ family life involved books. Lots and lots of books. He grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. His mother was one of the first Black female graduates of Harvard Law School and there was not a hint of theatre interest in the family. But when Jacobs-Jenkins’ parents took him to see Waiting for Godot at the Studio Theatre, something clicked. He dived into theatre with a vengeance.
After graduating from high school as his class valedictorian, Jacobs-Jenkins went to Princeton, graduating with an anthropology degree in 2006. He added a master’s in Performance Studies from NYU, then graduated from the prestigious Lila Acheson Wallace Playwrights Program at Juilliard.
From there, Jacobs-Jenkins worked at the New Yorker, editing and writing reviews while writing his first play, Neighbors. Two years in Germany on a Fulbright grant followed, before he returned home to write Appropriate and An Octoroon.
Not surprisingly, Jacobs-Jenkins is in demand from numerous fronts. He’s taught at NYU, Yale, Juilliard, Hunter College and the University of Texas. When the Signature Theatre made him a member of its Residency Five program in 2013, it guaranteed him three full productions of new work.
Speaking of new work, the small screen is where you can find Jacobs-Jenkins’ latest project. He’s the showrunner and head writer for the FX on Hulu series “Kindred.” Based on Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, “Kindred” tells the story of Dana Franklin, an African American writer who keeps time-traveling between 2016 and antebellum Maryland, where she repeatedly saves the life of her white slaveholding ancestor.
“After watching this, I want people to question their assumptions about what they think they know about history, about themselves,” he told the New York Times.
The same could be said about Appropriate.