“None of us started out thinking that Broadway was in any way a thing that we should care about. We accepted as a given that commercial theatre is not a space we would have, so we’re committed to experimentation in part because that’s what was happening Off-Broadway at the time.”
I’m interviewing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in the bowels of the Orange Tree Theatre (which I can now attest is at least 50% staircases), and am not quite resisting the temptation to nerd out over both his work, and the avowedly experimental New York playwriting scene he’s a part of. Tantalising glimpses of it have come to London: Annie Baker’s The Flick, Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, The TEAM’s RoosevElvis.
As we talk at warp speed, he throws in more names, like Lucas Hnath and Amie Herzog. He remarks, pleasingly, that “every playwright in New York is obsessed with Caryl Churchill. It’s so funny, poll anyone.” And even reveals that he lives across the street from Anne Washburn. He’s also careful to point out that Off-Broadway isn’t entirely a promised land of formally innovative theatre stars, as any number of comedies set in ‘upscale’ living rooms show.
But watching An Octoroon, it’s clear that there is something a bit special about a theatre scene that can let this happen. It’s an ingenious reimagining of 1859 play The Octoroon, the kind of work that no one even tries to stage anymore: a Victorian melodrama about a slave owner who falls in love with a woman who he technically owns. Jacobs-Jenkins reframes it, messes around with it, throws in whiteface and blackface and redface. He gives its black characters the agency its author Dion Boucicault denied them. And, magically, he manages to retain the original’s fierce, tense, melodramatic heart – while ripping the piss out of it at every opportunity.
Despite the fact that his source material is, by modern standards, a very racist play, Jacobs-Jenkins clearly harbours more than a little affection for it. “It’s a play that weirdly stuck with me. I first encountered it as an undergraduate in African American theatre class, looking at the first instances of blackness of stage, which are obviously not often written by blacks — they were white guys, frequently Irish, who were in some ways lampooning or parodying or putting on blackface, essentially, to explore this idea of the undertrodden.”
It’s a relic from the very beginnings of depicting African-American experience on stage – but as he goes on to explain, it also says something about depicting American-ness in a wider sense, about the stories being told when the country that was still formulating its identity.
The same critical devotion to these stubs of theatre history was visible in Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2010 play Neighbors, which used the defunct visual language of black and white minstrelsy to force a white family to confront their hidden, internalised racism. When I saw it Hightide a few years back I was utterly baffled by it. Its vaudeville language felt alien to me. But to him, “Melodrama became film, which became television. Minstrelsy itself is based on English music hall. The funny thing about the theatre and performance world is that it’s always adapting itself to like the needs of an audience. It’s sort of hiding from itself.”
Neighbors dragged these hidden, chameleonic performance languages into stark daylight. In the past 50 years, blackface has transformed from being a device, part of the language and machinery of mainstream theatre, into probably the most controversial statement you can make on stage.
Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “I think part of what’s so provocative about my work, or what gets labelled as so provocative about my work – I wouldn’t say my work is provoking in any conscious way – is that people feel that they can recognise the stereotypes I’m using. And I’m like right, the recognition of them means they exist within you as a concept. If these things were actually eradicated from our cultural spaces or effaced from our imaginary, these characters would fail, but they don’t. These characters are paying off references you’re encountering in your daily consumption.”
The “daily consumption” part is an intriguing one – because the cultural diet of UK and US audiences is so different. Samuel L Jackson sparked controversy last year by objecting to black British actors playing African-American roles. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t dismiss his statements – and later in our conversation, he tells me that they’ve inspired a new play he’s working on for Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre: “It’s about trying to make a movie about slavery… I do want to think through that encounter between black British artists and American lives.”
But he also suggests that similar perceptions have held his work back from being staged in the UK sooner:
“Every time I came to London and met up with literary managers here I’d get the same response, which is “well, you know your work is just too American” which I find really surreal, because Bruce Norris’s work did really well over here. I think it’s often a kind of knee-jerk excuse people will bring up. American work is ultimately defined by American history and social politics, so I think people are going to identify with this at a slight remove. But that’s fine. I like to hope to do something that’s more than just…the racial trauma of being alive in 2017 in New York, or in America broadly.”
The most immediately striking elements of An Octoroon are the ways it reengages with America’s history of slavery on modern terms, and rewrites it, turning the original play’s three female slaves into smart, pragmatic, funny women you could imagine meeting anywhere in today’s South. But it’s also a work that opens out into questions of what storytelling is, and what we do with the stories that shaped us once we’ve outgrown them, sloughed them off like a snake’s old dry skin.
While he was first making his career as a playwright, Jacobs-Jenkins worked on the theatre desk at the New Yorker magazine. I wondered if this background in theatre criticism has made him extra-sensitive to the way his plays have been received – in particular, to the way his race has been foregrounded in discussions of his work.
He responds that “I’m very aware of how certain narratives actually get written through things like the media, and how they can ultimately limit us. In some ways, these things sort of re-inscribe problems. No one is really challenged to think bigger.”
A Guardian interview with him last year rather jarringly included the line: “Race. It is both Jacobs-Jenkins’s calling card and his burden” – in an echo, conscious or otherwise, of the colonial phrase “white man’s burden”.
“Isn’t that wild?” he responds, “It’s the writer’s burden, right, because that’s what they walk into [the interview] and talk about.” He brings up Jesse Green’s appointment as second string theatre critic at the New York Times – a source of disappointment for people in the industry who hoped the paper would bring in a female critic, or a critic of colour – and then mentions his post-show tweet for An Octoroon: “He wrote that it was 7/8ths brilliant, 1/8th overthought. It was like: do you know what ‘octoroon’ means? Are you equating the black part of me…there was a kind of ease with which he felt he could deploy this essentially white supremacist rhetoric, it’s weird. There’s a thing where just because you’re an arts journalist, you’re automatically assumed to be quote ‘woke’. But that’s actually part of what this moment is about, it’s about not being so complacent with your own perceived tolerance.”
Referencing Nicole Acquah’s Exeunt article, Why can’t a black body be just a body on stage, he talks about the struggle for artists of colour in an overwhelmingly white critical conversation, “questioning what is this weird echo chamber that we’re all kind of in. We’re automatically politicised…. It’s kind of a dark discourse, and I feel very hyper aware of it because I also worked for one of the only leading, if not the only leading full-time black critics in the city, Hilton Als, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. That was superb. Working for him was just a gift, because I feel like I had a very unique sense of how things work somehow.”
This unique sense of how things work finds another outlet in his play Gloria, which builds, more or less explicitly, on Jacobs-Jenkins’ experiences working at the New Yorker. He clarifies that “People who go to Gloria looking for some expose on what the New Yorker’s offices are like are generally very disappointed because in truth, what I wanted to write about was work. Honestly the only real salaried workaday job I’ve ever had, other than teaching, is working in that office, so I drew on memories of my experience of being essentially a desk slave.”
It’s a loaded phrase. I venture that from what I’ve read, Gloria sounds a bit…bleak, but am cautioned from probing deeper: “It’s one of those plays where I feel like the less you know, the more you get out of it, or something. Yeah it is very bleak. But I wasn’t sitting there and thinking you know, it’s time for a bleak office dramady!”
What I do know is that like An Octoroon, it’s playing with form. And returning to an earlier bit of my conversation with Jacobs-Jenkins, I wonder if there’s something unique about the American theatre system that lets playwrights do that.
He points out that in America, commissions are bigger, there are fewer of them, and writers have longer to work on them. He explains that “Every time you want to break a form, you have to take time to do it. Whereas I think if I was really pressed to write quickly, I wouldn’t have room to be conscious enough of the formal work I was doing. An Octoroon took me at least two years to fully write, and Gloria similarly. If I’d had pressure to put them out immediately I don’t know what they would have felt like.”
He’s also reeling from the fast pace of production in UK theatre: “We also get like three weeks of previews, so that’s something of a culture shock here. They said ‘We have five previews’ and I was like ‘What are you talking about!’ That’s where directors do their best work. I mean I would be under a rock right now, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
In director Ned Bennett’s hands, it’s clear that there’s no need for the Orange Tree to add a sizeable rock to their already bursting-at-the-seams theatre. An Octoroon feels like essential viewing, a play that springs up from roots at the birth of American theatre into something that’s completely of the now – and is ready to confront audiences with a whole new loving, experimental way of treating theatre’s problematic back-catalogue.