Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a pop vocalist, a mimic and a rollicking raconteur. He’s also an accomplished playwright pushing the boundaries of subject matter and form—a fact that has been noted in U.S. and international theatrical circles. A native of Washington, D.C., who now lives in Brooklyn, Jacobs-Jenkins has won numerous accolades ranging from the Princess Grace Award and the Dorothy Streslin Playwriting Fellowship to the Paula Vogel Award, and productions of his plays have made waves at theatres across the country. That’s sure to continue—he’s just 30. His new play War will bow at Yale Repertory Theatre in the fall, and New York City’s Vineyard Theatre will produce his Gloria next season.Jacobs-Jenkins speaks at a rapid-fire pace, often referencing obscure historical figures and pop icons in the same breath. His multifaceted plays ricochet between genres and from hilarity to heartache.N(E)IG(H)G(BO)ERS (or Neighbors), which premiered at the Public Theater in 2010, is billed as “a play with c(art)oons.” Its titular typography is a clue to its explosive content: When a family of traveling minstrel performers moves in next door to an interracial family, trouble starts—and the play’s biting use of blackface upends any and all notions of racial identity and decorum.Jacobs-Jenkins’s critically lauded Appropriate, on the other hand, appears on the surface to be a naturalistic family drama: When the estranged members of the Lafayette clan convene after the death of a patriarch in the family’s crumbling plantation home, they uncover a number of horrific relics from the past—including an album of lynching photographs. Appropriate has received productions at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, Chicago’s Victory Gardens, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth and New York City’s Signature Theatre.
Alex Barron, literary manager at the Playwrights Realm, has known Jacobs-Jenkins since they were teens doing theatre together in Maryland. “I find that when I see one thing, Branden sees 10 things,” he says. “His work represents the struggle to show an audience how these 10 things are all indelibly connected. The story of a dysfunctional family in Appropriate is actually about ghosts and class and self-loathing and cicadas and Chekhov and faith and the centuries-old legacy of slavery.”
An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins’s riff on Boucicault’s 1859 classic The Octoroon, which had a 2010 workshop at PS122, bows this month at Soho Rep in a production directed by Sarah Benson. “Branden is like a performer whose material is text,” Benson observes. “He has a holistic sense of what works in the theatre and uncanny insights into technical issues.” Though his plays reference history, they aren’t necessarily about history. “He’s taking ideas that are huge and complex and naughty and weird, and finding a way of literally theatricalizing them. People aren’t sitting around talking about history in his plays—he’s embedding these ideas in the actual form, and finding ways to make the idea promote the form and the form promote the idea.”
Christie Evangelisto, literary director at the Signature, where Jacobs-Jenkins is a Residency Five playwright, sounds a similar note. “Branden said to me recently that ‘form is always character’ when he writes a play, and that’s one of the reasons why his plays feel so rich, so full—they operate on many different levels at once, and shift beneath our feet, and we love keeping up with them.”
Jacobs-Jenkins and I met at a pie shop near the Signature and then again at Sushi Dojo in the East Village during previews of Appropriate. While the May/June print edition American Theatre featured a mere reduction sauce of both interviews; here online we’re publishing both interviews almost in their entirety. Below, we begin at the pie shop.
BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS: Am I gonna eat this pie in front of you?
ELIZA BENT: No, let me order. Okay. So how, and why, did you become a playwright?
There are two versions of this story. One is like The Lion King. My grandmother was a playwright. But she only wrote for her church in Arkansas. I spent the summers with her and part of the year, and I have memories of falling asleep to her typewriter in the kitchen and being in these things she was rehearsing. They were adaptations of Bible stories but like really dark and very gothic. And I’d play like a bunny or something.
They would happen in the church?
Yeah, and they were so popular that they would tour to other churches. I mean, obviously, this is like amateur theatricals, but it’s something she got known for and it became like an annual thing, and after I starting writing, my mother was like, “You do remember this, right?” So that’s one version.
There’s another version in which I really wanted to write fiction. Then I went to college and took too many creative writing classes and they were like, “You’ve taken them all. You can’t take anymore.” So I took a playwriting class. And then all this happened.
So you started in fiction?
Yeah. I was very serious about storytelling. But I was also really into anthropology and was always writing about historical performances for some reason, which is how I became interested in performance studies, which I eventually went to grad school for. My “junior thesis” was on Alan Lomax and his prison recordings and how they basically shaped American popular music—so I was weirdly already thinking about blackness and American-ness and appropriation and popular culture. And then my senior year I wanted to write about the concept of “black drama.” My thesis was a play, like, trying to be a response to August Wilson and Tyler Perry, and it was traumatic. It was so bad.
You wrote a play for your thesis?
Yes. There’s a strain of anthropology that allows for stranger “experimental ethnographies.” Or at least this was what was in vogue when I was a student.
Tell me about the thesis play.
It’s the play that every 22-year-old writes. Somebody had a heart problem and it’s mildly surreal. His little sister has an unnamed disease. At some point her hair comes back to her in the form of a person and then there’s this ballet and she dies. And her family deals with her death. It was so bad. [Repeats “It was so bad” five times quickly with great flourish.] The main character collected prisms. The idea of sustaining someone’s attention for more than fifteen minutes was like trying to climb a mountain for me.
I’d go to my advisor’s office every week and just sob. I didn’t know what I was doing or how to try doing it. I think, having taught now, I recognize I was like trying to break myself open creatively. I sobbed and sobbed. The thesis happened. And apparently Quiara Hudes came.
I didn’t know it was her! But someone teaching there recently asked me if I remembered this woman being brought to my show and saying something very encouraging to me like, “You did all this?” and apparently it was her.
I love it. So, graduate school?
Yeah, so historically performance studies has always been thought of as blend of artistic practice with research, but I got there so burned out on what I knew to be theatre, so I just read a lot about dance and performance art. I got really into performance history of downtown New York. I saw everything at PS 122. I saw everything at the Kitchen. I kind of felt like I would be a performance artist/academic. At NYU I took a composition class with Carmelita Tropicana. Do know Carmelita?
I was super-depressed at the time and I had started graduate school literally a week after graduation, which I would never recommend anyone do. I was a wreck and I think I knew I didn’t want to be an academic on some level and was just punishing myself a little bit for all the time I hadn’t paid attention in college. Anyway, to give myself something else to do, I started studio assisting for this artist Claude Wampler. I was very inspired by her and her work—super-mischievous, all about exploring/exposing/distorting the audience/artist contract—and I helped her build a couple pieces, one which toured.
I was going to try to follow in her steps somehow and I started making my own solo work. And Carmelita comes into this, because I made this solo piece for her class called “Thirst,” which was essentially a monologue about being 22 and being disillusioned with graduate school. And, as I delivered it, I drank water out of a goldfish bowl with one of those crazy straws and there was a goldfish in the bowl slowly drowning in air the “thirstier” I got. So the water is going down and everyone’s getting upset because I guess no one wants to watch a goldfish die and, in the end, I’m like, “I’m gonna try throwing this back up to save this fish’s life.” And then I would force myself to vomit up the water and save this goldfish. You know. And it horrified the class. But Carmelita loved it and she got someone to program it into Avant Garde-a-Rama, which is an annual group show that used to happen at P.S. 122, and that was actually the first professional thing I ever did in New York. Justin V Bond and Taylor Mac were the hosts. People in the audience threw water bottles at me. I felt so fancy.
Then I started making more work and started playing around with blackface. I think was trying to explore the idea of minstrelsy and its limits, so I did this series of performance where I’d wear blackface and like a really expensive clothes—like a $400 pair of jeans—and do these clown bits to pop songs. Then I did this show in D.C. that ruined everything for me.
Tell me more.
Well, a now-defunct gallery had rented out an old school for a performance festival and commissioned me to do something, so I filled this old beautiful bathroom with fog and set up all these spotlights and chairs around the perimeter. It was a tiny room. So tiny. And the audience sat in the chairs and only fifteen people could see it at a time. I would come in wearing blackface and every chair received a very specific performance. Like, a small minute-long thing that would happen. And you would have to watch while everyone got their performance and then they would watch you while you had yours.
How did this ruin everything?
Well, I’m from D.C. and I specifically didn’t tell my family what I was doing. I was like, “Mom, I’m coming home for work. Please don’t bother me.” But she had just discovered Google or something and found out about this festival so, without telling me, she invited herself and all these family friends and grade school teachers from my past. And walking in and seeing all these people from my past crammed into this room was actually my living nightmare hell.
I have this very vivid memory of being in blackface and staring into my kindergarten teacher’s eyes and lip-synching to this Cab Calloway song “Some of These Days” and she just seemed terrified. And one of the occupants of the chair gets to ask me a question as a part of their “performance” and in this particular chair on that particular night was my principal. And the whole thing was just so surreal and when I tell her she can ask me a question, she says, “Okay. Well, first of all, I want to say we are so proud of you. And secondly, when are we going to see you on Broadway?” We’re in the bathroom of an abandoned school! I am covered in facepaint! Fake fog is swirling everywhere! And there’s fifteen people in the audience and she asks, “Is Broadway next?” It was so painful. [Laughter.]
After that I did my last job with Claude and we had this night together were I was like, “Claude, I think I have to make work that my mother will understand. I think I’m drifting towards playwriting.” And she gave me a blessing and four pieces of advice: Grow a beard, lie about your age, find your tribe and get someone to give you a space.
Stop! That’s good advice.
I’ve given this advice to other people.
Your assistant Ken has a beard!
I know. And this is all a roundabout way of saying that I became a playwright so that my mother could not humiliate me in a performance art context. So I did all that stuff Claude told me to do and I applied for the New York Theatre Workshop Emerging Artist Fellowship which, for some reason, they actually gave to me and, while I was there, I wrote Neighbors, basically. And Neighbors kind of grew organically from the work I’d been doing in graduate school and the work I’d been doing as an undergrad—these weird performance pieces were all kind of coming together into a story or something. And, at the end of the first half of my residency, we did a reading of it, which Geoffrey Scott saw and programmed into the Prelude festival the following year. Then I applied to the Public’s Emerging Writers Group and Ars Nova Play Group—which were kind of the only “writers groups” in town at the time—and I guess my play was so disturbing I got into both.
And eventually the Public produced Neighbors.
Yes, at the end of my time with them.
Let’s talk more about Neighbors. I read in the New York Times that you were inspired to write it after learning that a professor thought you had difficulty directly addressing race in your work. I’m curious how true that is.
This was the thesis advisor whose office I’d cried in every week. And I found out about a year or so after the fact that he’d believed I had a very difficult time with my thesis because it was the first time I had ever had to deal with questions of race in my work.
Did that play deal directly with race?
Yes and no. Now, in retrospect, I realize that all my work leading up to that point had cleverly skirted the question, either through some sort of formal construct or setting it in a workplace or like a “neutral” space. For my thesis I was inadvertently writing something that was ostensibly more or less family drama, and you can’t avoid questions of identity when you’re writing about family because there’s obviously a number of things that the people in the room share, e.g. a last name, a genetic makeup, etc.
So at the time I felt really betrayed by what my professor wrote. Like, “Why didn’t you effing tell me this when I was crying on your couch every week?” Those words never once came out of his mouth—but maybe he didn’t fell like that was his role? Or something? So I decided, “I’m going to write the last play I ever have to about this subject. I am going to cram every single thing I can possibly know, think, or feel about it into this one play.” I was so annoyed. And, on my end, I’m sure there was some Oedipal stuff going on.
But then, as I started writing Neighbors I was like, “Oh, right. This is a big topic. This is a deep room, there are a lot of layers and big philosophical questions at the heart of race and it’s really profound and I’m not going to solve this problem in one play.”
I think any questions about the nature of identity and identification are pretty classic dramatic waters: What part of me is myself? How much of me gets ascribed to me by society? The idea of wholeness? Those are profound questions about life and time. How do you know yourself at any moment in your life? So much of it you spend unaware of yourself. Or it’s spent sleeping.
Anyway. That’s where that came from. And let me also say that this thesis advisor is one of the most important teachers I ever had, period. Robert Sandberg is his name. I owe my whole career to him. In fact, when I teach now, I realize how much I still draw on what I learned from him.
Are you still in touch with him?
Yeah, we see each other time to time. He brought me back to talk to his class a couple of years ago. Full circle.
Another quote from the same New York Times article. You said, “Everyone keeps telling me that Neighbors is a provocative piece, but no one can actually tell me what’s provocative about it.” Do you find it provocative?
I feel like “provocative” is a marketing term. And I feel like people apply “provocative” to anything that involves a person of color onstage. Anything! I just find that a weirdly false word. It’s like, provocative to provoke what? I’m not making agitprop. I’m not asking you to go out into the street and burn down buildings. But if its provoking you to think—isn’t that what—
All theatre should be doing?
Right! But, I mean, maybe not? I never know.
It’s interesting about the word provocative and who gets ascribed that word. I remember talking with Thomas Bradshaw about the word “provocateur” because he’s often described that way.
Thomas and I have been on panels about this before. I don’t think anyone walks around calling themselves a provocateur. And what does it mean to be provocative once you have an audience that comes to your work looking to be provoked? How provocative is that if people are asking for it?
Or expecting it.
Yeah, what does that mean? I don’t know. I think provocation is a very intense thing to put on a playwright as an obligation or aesthetic label. I don’t think we do the same thing over and over again but, somehow, your first super-visible work starts to define you in the worst way. AfterNeighbors, people would start saying things to me like, “I’m a huge fan of your work.” And I’m like, “What work?! I’ve written one play, what are you talking about? You’ve seen Neighbors, but did you see my weird blackface pieces? Did you read my college one-acts?” As a writer, I think you’re constantly figuring out how to deal with this persona of yourself that’s always preceding you into a room.
Sorry to be a philistine, but how do you pronounce Appropriate?
I pronounce it appropriate [the adjective]. But a lot of my titles are usually tricked out or punny in that way. I’m interested in how something can look the same but mean totally different things. Blah blah blah. Language.
In the Washington Post Peter Marks wrote, “That he evokes these people so believably activates one of the possible meanings of the title. Jacobs-Jenkins appropriates, makes his own, a story of white America, and this presages a more hopeful time when the ethnic identity of a playwright might not prompt a mention.”
Peter Marks is so nice!
Walk me through it.
Walk you through what?
I’m interested in hearing you talk about Appropriate and what you’ve learned from the various productions of it and how it’s grown.
Well, what really triggered the writing of the play was hearing people describe the great American family drama and what that was. I’d look around and be like, “There are no people of color on these lists.” Who has access to this idea of family as a universal theme? A Raisin in the Sun and The Piano Lesson and Stick Fly—which are all totally about family—are somehow “social drama” about “race.” That’s sort of what I kept skirting around and thinking about.
And I was thinking about “blackness” as a dramatic material, in the same way that you might think of “suspense” or “red herrings” or something. Race—or, rather, “difference” —seems to be a funny device in the theatre that does funny things to stories and situations. I started investigating this in Neighbors, in which blackness is super-present and, hopefully, super-problematized as a visual idea. There are 15 versions of it.
[Jacobs-Jenkins’s assistant Ken Greller arrives with a migraine medicine delivery.]
For Neighbors I was like, What is black? Is it someone in face-paint, is it a half black person? Is it a black professor who “talks white” and loves the classics? It was about shoving as many different ideas of theatrical blackness into the room. Which ones are real and which ones matter? For Appropriate, I was interested in how invisible I could make blackness but still have it affect the viewing experiences. Somehow what marks this family as “white” is the fact that I’m a “black playwright.” And, like, yikes.
And, sort of on a minor note, I was interested in figuring out what my job is. What do we go to the theatre to look at and why? I just had all these suspicions about the theatre that I wanted to flesh out for myself in some way. I also felt like—
Tell me more about the suspicions!
[Laughter.] I don’t know! I felt… I didn’t understand why… In some ways I could never have a career in the theatre as an actor, because there’d be nothing to sustain me. There’d be no parts for me to play. Does that mean there’s no audience for me? It’s just all the questions of what is the theatre, is it a good or a bad? Is it a relic? I don’t know what the theatre is anymore—or what it was.
[Janet Jackson’s “Runaway” plays in the background.]
And then there’s the whole question of naturalism. I found myself judging these “family dramas” and writing them off because of their conventional storytelling form. So I asked myself, “Why am I doing that?” I believe that form is really powerful—almost sacred—because it’s all we have as writers. This is what’s handed down to us, there are these forms, but for some reason—up until this moment—I’d been valuing some over others. I was really into Sam Shepherd for a while and I love Buried Child, and was wondering what is the gulf between Buried Child and August Wilson? I went back and read every family drama I could get my hands on, and after a while I realized they are actually all about race or ethnicity or identity. They all are but they never get credited as that.
I think Tracy Letts specially chose to put a Native American in the attic [of August Osage County]. A Streetcar Named Desire is all about interracial marriage between classes, and even Death of a Salesmanis all about a Jewish neighborhood.
Yet it’s not “about” that.
Exactly. Long Day’s Journey is totally about Irish immigrants trying to buy their way into a new class—a WASPier social set. I was like, “Why does no one talk about this?” That was the initial journey I was on. I feel like I’m always trying to answer a question or otherwise I get bored with what I’m writing. So that’s sort of where it began.
I thought I was going to adapt something for a while, and then eventually I got the idea in my head that I would read all these plays and take one thing from each of them that I really loved and then put those all in the play. It was a hot, four-hour crazy mess. But somehow, beginning from that place of learning to love these plays, shapes and arcs began to be apparent. And then the play kind of happened.
Tell me about that.
It’s such a fast process but the first act came together and then I could kind of see the end of the road. Every production has been totally different. Partly because I think I leave so much open in terms of meaning. Or I try to. I try to give the audience the space they want or need to have an experience.
Because I feel like I personally don’t like being told how to feel about my feelings. I want to be left to decide that. I want to just meet somewhere and have things come up for me and then process it my own or with my friend. That’s the only way to make theatregoing an exchange, because I feel like entertainment is, you leave and forget about it—which is not necessarily a bad thing. But I like theatre that’s trying to speak to the actual people in the actual room—the little mock-society that we’ve formed—and, like, get to the heart of something and get to life and how confusing it is to be in groups.
To that extent it’s been really intense having four really different productions. Because so much is contingent upon the feeling that certain actors bring to a role. Or what the director feels about the material. Liesl [Tommy, who directed Appropriate at the Signature] is from South Africa. Gary Griffin [who directed Appropriate at the Humana Festival and Victory Gardens] is from Kentucky. The productions could not be more different. It’s been fascinating to watch how another artist puts a certain kind of pressure on the show and its form and its themes.
Let’s talk about An Octoroon.
I feel like Neighbors, An Octoroon and Appropriate are all linked in some deep, fundamental way. I don’t think of it as a trilogy but I feel like it’s a thing I have moved through and have come to a conclusion with it.
[“What conclusion?” a well-dressed pie eater says. It’s Lileana Blain-Cruz, who will direct Jacobs-Jenkins’s War at Yale Repertory Theatre in the fall. She tells me she was the sound board operator for Jacobs-Jenkins’s senior year thesis. “I would watch you be stressed out of your mind!” At this point Jacobs-Jenkins leaps up and performs a small dance that was in Blain-Cruz’s senior thesis, For Colored Girls. After much laughter and a few more moves, Blain-Cruz exits.]
Neighbors, An Octoroon and Appropriate are all studies in genre. They are all engaged in the act of looking how the theatre interacts with questions of identity—I hate that word, but I think the question always transforms and that has to do with being alive. Why do we think of a social issue as something that can be solved? Is there such thing as “the last play about anything ever”? Maybe it’s actually like nothing we’re living with is that new. Except for iPhones. We’re still idiots, we’re still human idiots. And we always have been. So there’s that.
What’s your relationship to melodrama?
Melodrama is actually what the majority of our American theatrical heritage was until Eugene O’Neill came along and popped us in the face with modernism. But, in addition to the Greeks, he was super influenced by melodrama—Boucicault being kind of the reigning kind of the form in the 19th century. And I think melodrama is an amazing thing—it’s like the science part of what we do. A generation of French guys literally just kept doing things to an audience and refined a codified formula for making an audience feel the way that these French guys thought they should feel at any given moment. This idea that we’re just these animals that are easily manipulated by certain steps or moves or gestures is so profound to me and made me wonder: What is it that we’re doing? Is it ethical? Or are ethics somehow besides the point.
I became really obsessed with Boucicault. He’s actually like our first American dramatist, because he’s this Anglo-Irish guy that came over here and wrote one of the first, most important plays about American life. It was this huge sensation and a direct response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is this hugely important flag in the history of American theatre. I was interested in how Boucicault would rewrite his plays depending on his audiences—like for The Octoroon, he had two different endings: one in which the heroine died (for American audiences) and another where she didn’t (for the British audiences). To me, that did not square up against the idea of an “responsible artist.” An artist had to make an artistic choice and stand by it. The idea that he would be commercially reworking his work just to make money was just… I don’t know.
But as I dug deeper, I realized that’s not actually how it shook down. He tried his original ending in London and the audiences wouldn’t deal with it. He wrote like all these pamphlets and editorials defending his ending as “truthful” but in the end, perhaps a little out of spite, he rewrote the ending. I think a lot of people see this as some sort of… weakness on his part, but I think it’s telling that he burned that draft—that it’s not even in the public domain anymore. Then he made a cut version for the printing, which was never actually produced and I thought, “This is so amazing.”
I did all this crazy archival research at the New York Public Library and I found this insane unfinished essay he wrote on the art of dramatic writing. One thing I’ve always lamented is that playwrights never really write down what they think in a real way. I love Arthur Miller’s theatre essays—this is me being academic and ridiculous. So I find this Boucicault essay and it says how the whole enterprise for us is creating the dramatic illusion. We’re just trying to create the most perfect illusion, because that is where catharsis begins with audiences. And the way we get that illusion is that we create the most believable illusion of someone suffering. And I was, like, obsessed with this essay and that kind of became the guide for Octoroon. I wanted to talk about the illusion of suffering versus actual suffering and ask, Is there a relationship between the two?
In terms of meta-melodrama, I just like the idea that this isn’t a new idea. This is like Brecht, but the idea that you could feel something and then be aware that you’re feeling it is really profound to me. That somehow we possess these two faculties, one which is intellectual and gets us through the world, but the one that’s always working is the subconscious feeling place, and that’s what we care about that’s what the theatre is obligated to.
To make people feel?
Yeah. It’s about feeling and building emotional experiences for people. That’s a very tall order, and I think it requires thought and care. When you talk about feelings, we’re talking about things we were doing since we were babies. I was with someone the other day and she was like, “Oh, watching theatre is one of the first things you learn how to do. When you’re a baby one of the first things you do is learn to sit and look at everything.” Is that why it’s so familiar to us? This is what I am obsessed with: feelings and that they’re mysterious and that we constantly try and fail and sometimes succeed put language on them.
And yet you’re not interested in telling people how to feel?
Well, no, not how to feel about their feelings. I think my work has annoyed some people because I believe that ugly feelings have a place in the theatre! If you cannot feel angry or upset or, like, scandalized or grossed out or bored in the theatre, where else are you supposed to feel safe to do that?
There were all these crazy talk backs for Neighbors where someone would be like, “I walked out!” I would be like, “That’s amazing! That’s okay. I think you took charge of your life and made a choice.” I want the right to walk out of anything.
There’s a slight paradox at the heart of what we do, and this is when we get to the idea of American theatre. We’re a democracy. A democratic nation is at the heart of the American idea of itself. But audiences are not democratic. Audiences are about consensus. The successful audience is laughing at the same time and gasping at the same time. Well, a democratic audience is actually kind of weird. Sometimes people are laughing and something they aren’t. That feels real to me. I love that. I love it when an audience can howl together, but I’m excited by people who titter or cackle at the wrong time. I love people who walk out! And how everyone looks at the person who walks out. Being in groups is weird! [Laughter.] We don’t know what we’re doing.
Thus ended the conversation at the Signature pie shop. It picked up again the following week at Sushi Dojo in the East Village.
Last time you talked about how Neighbors, Appropriate and An Octoroon are in conversation with each other. Tell me more.
I certainly don’t think of it as a trilogy, but I do think of them as a set with me following a mode of inquiry to a natural conclusion. They all seem interested in the question of genre, like how history actually operates in our lives as human beings. I’m interested in representations of blackness and how to represent social constructs onstage that are so tied to a specific culture of nation. Also these three plays are all about theatre to me.
Tell me more about breaking apart social constructs onstage.
I just don’t know how blackness onstage works. It’s just a thing that has always confused me. I don’t know what anyone is talking about when they talk about black theatre, black drama, black actors. I don’t know. No one walks around saying white theatre or white actors. I just want to understand.
I was struck last time about your experience as a performer, and how you talked about being cast in roles that weren’t written for people that are black. I’m curious to hear you tease that out more. It sounded, and please correct me here, that you were cast in some roles in a “color-blind” casting manner but that ultimately that really wasn’t satisfying for you?
I wouldn’t say it was unsatisfying. I wasn’t ever someone who wanted to be an actor professionally. I never thought that I wanted to be an actor for real. It was the thing I enjoyed doing in my little town in D.C. and Montgomery County, Maryland. I enjoyed doing it in college and gradually it became more and more fraught and I didn’t understand why. It seemed like I was being limited for some reason and I didn’t understand why. I don’t want to argue against color-blind casting. But I think color-blind casting is a choice. It’s a political choice that you have to be aware of. It’s not like this automatic get-of-jail-thinking-about-these-issues free card.
And this is why I’m attracted to anthropology, too. How, literally, our very artistic cultural forms are grown out of the millions of tiny battles that are lost and won in any given society. And trying to understand—I never understood what American theatre was. I didn’t know what that meant exactly. Because it didn’t seem to be the stuff I was making. It was bizarre; a bunch of stuff happened.
Even when I was writing my short stories, I’d bring them into class and I had this profound moment. It was the last creative writing class that I took in fiction. I brought in a story to workshop and after we talked about it the teacher said, “Well, my final question is, what race are these people?” And I was completely—you know, it was life-changing.
The real lesson I learned from that was that there was an expectation being placed on me and what I wrote that I wasn’t aware of, and that was to explain something about blackness or depict black life as a foreign object worthy of delineation and inquiry by…who, exactly? Whereas in my experience reading, and growing up and going to shows, I never encountered anything like, “Jane Eyre, comma, white.”
But perhaps, “Jane Eyre, comma, woman.”
I have students and they’ll have character lists, and there’ll be one character, “comma, black.” And I’ll be like, “So, what does this mean? Does this mean that everyone else is Chinese? What is happening? Why doesn’t everyone get this treatment? What is it about blackness that creates so much anxiety that you have to single it out? And why do you feel like this Starbucks employee should be black and not the lawyer? What are the assumptions going into this creative act here?”
That’s part of what’s so amazing about David Henry Hwang. He was really writing about the same anxieties in some ways, but twenty years earlier. Does that even answer your question?
For sure. How does teaching inform your practice as a playwright?
It makes me feel really smart. [Laughter.] For some reason—because I took writing so seriously so early on, which may have been a mistake, who knows, but it’s my life—I have these very vivid sense memories of being 19 or 20 and like wanting something to be taught to me that I wasn’t finding anywhere. I always think about that when I’m teaching. When I think back on my 20-year-old I’m like, “What a weird idiot.” You’re supposed to make all kinds of mistakes at that age. When I’m teaching I feel like I’m trying to serve that older version of myself. I’m trying to soothe the students or give them the things it took me so much energy to learn. Just basic things.
I remember every single teacher who impacted my life as a writer. I think in some ways when you start writing you’re just trying to appease those people, whoever they are.
And part of understanding these teachers is understanding yourself as a former student and you always identify yourself with certain students. I’ll think, “I can’t let you turn into me. I need to make sure it’s better for you.”
What do you do with them?
I’m not really an “exercise” teacher. And I’m generally wary of most teaching methodologies for creative writing. I really think that the most important thing you can do for a writer is make them a very good reader and make them as unafraid as possible of the act of writing. The truth is, in most creative endeavors, you only learn by doing, so you’re really just trying to help them build a healthy practice as opposed to “learn how to write an X.” Which isn’t to say you can’t teach craft, but at a certain point in a novice playwright’s development, that’s like putting the horse before the cart.
When I first came to New York I was super anti-craft. Then I sort of realized, “Oh, this is the body of knowledge that’s been handed down to us from, like, Euripides. This is a kind of thing that we’re supposed to be passing down from one generation to the next.” I always find that really moving. Is that dumb?
Not at all! Who’s your favorite Greek?
Do you have a favorite-favorite playwright?
There are three answers to that. I love Tennessee Williams. He’s the only playwright where I’ve literally read almost everything he’s ever written—his poetry, his short stories, his notebooks. I also really love O’Neill—those plays don’t just go down easy. They’re hard work! He’s like Caryl Churchill—he made some new forms for us! That’s like the science of what we do. He found new ways to tell stories and some of them were crazy batshit failures. But some of them were amazing. And that’s really inspiring. [He stabs some kale.] And, like any playwright who’s alive with half a brain, I love Caryl Churchilll… a lot!
Can you imagine going back into performance world? You’re making plays now. What’s next for you? Tell me about War. Where’s your career going?
You tell me!
What are your dreams!?
Well, I’m weirdly in Octoroon. Part of the weirdness of that is that I’m not supposed to be in it. I’m not an actor! I don’t want to be an actor.
But you’re a performer. I saw your moves the other day.
The moves with Lileana! You’re a vivid storyteller. You’re obviously a performer.
That’s sweet. I don’t feel like one. Claude used to be in her own work and then she stopped and I asked her why one day and she said, “I stopped finding myself interesting to look at.” I totally know what she means now. I feel that way. I did this thing for my friends—this sibling art group called Lewis Forever—they always hire a person to be their fake sibling. So I did this show at Dance New Amsterdam and wore a wig that made me look like I could be related to them and did this bizarre retrospective of their work and I felt so inept.
[The song “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire comes on the sound system.] Oh my God. This song!
This song makes me so emotional. This album came out when I was at Sundance and writing Appropriate and I would listen to it on loop. Um, anyway. Now I’m really distracted.
When did you go to Berlin and how does that play a part in your development as an artist?
In 2009 all these things happened in my life telling me I should go to Berlin, so I applied for a Fulbright and got one and went.
Were you studying theatre over there?
Yes. When I was a fellow at New York Theatre Workshop they took us to the Dialog Festival in Poland and I saw this production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by this big German director/set designer named Andreas Kriegenburg and it totally blew my mind—totally made me think about Chekhov in a different way. So I was interested in dramaturgy and the aesthetics of what they were doing over there—studying what that difference was. I had also spent a summer in Munich in college and had all these crazy memories of how weird it was for me, just in terms of how I was treated as a black American—the stares I got, the things people felt like they could say me. So I started Googling around and realized that every production in Germany that deals with race in some way…they don’t have black actors, so they either put people in Afro wigs or blackface or grass skirts or gorilla costumes. Those four things. So I wanted to unpack that system.
That’s a lot to unpack.
Yeah, this is sort of what War is about. Then I just sort of fell in love with the city and stayed there a lot longer than I was supposed to. Mostly because it’s the opposite of New York in a lot of ways. You can live so well for so little and travel almost anywhere that is remotely important historically. I had never had that experience before. And I spent a lot of time just being by myself and trying to figure out what that was. I got a separate studio for writing, which changed my life. All my artist friends over there had them and I was really inspired by watching them go to a room every day and just do stuff. That’s how they made discoveries. I guess I was trying to build some sort of practice for myself because I had either been in school—but never art school—or had day jobs my whole life and couldn’t ever get it together. I got really into some contemporary German playwrights, who I learned to love pretty significantly.
I love Roland Schimmelpfennig.
Alvis Hermanis, the Latvian director told me, “If you have to reduce it, in America people go to the theatre for entertainment. Germans go for political reasons and in Latvia it’s spiritual. Theatre is our church.”
You see that a lot in Eastern bloc countries—theatre does take on some religiosity. Not everyone goes but everyone can go because it’s affordable so the theatre is always full. It’s like a civic practice because drama is so tied into their national literature and, by extension, their national identity. Everyone reads Kleist in college. Every May Day you go to see Faust. So you go to the show and you know the story and you’re listening in a different way because it’s really apart of your understanding of yourselves. We don’t really have that kind of relationship to our literary history or culture. It would be like adapting “The Raven” every year, or Catcher in the Rye. [He makes a face.]
What do you want readers of American Theatre to you know about you?
I don’t know! I associate American Theatre with being in college and reading The Clean House for the first time and realizing that there was a such thing as a contemporary theatre full of living, breathing playwrights trying to do things, which was good. So, I don’t know. I’m nervous about pitching myself. Can’t I just say, “Hi”? Hi, guys.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!