Magazine article The New Yorker

God Only Knows

Magazine article The New Yorker

God Only Knows

Article excerpt

God Only Knows

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes on "Everyman."

Jacobs-Jenkins asks, What can the theatre do, besides talk?

A few years ago, I told a journalist who was writing about the now thirty-two-year-old playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that I thought he should write a play about love--that which cannot be explained. One of the more cerebral dramatists of his generation, the Obie Award-winning Jacobs-Jenkins delivered his first pieces on a sharp, powerful ray of thought, but it sometimes happened that his characters couldn't get out of the way of their own thinking. Or not their thinking, exactly, but their attempts to disrupt the received ideas about any number of things, including race and what constitutes a society.

In his first full-length play, "Neighbors" (2010), Jacobs-Jenkins set out to address "a three-hundred-year history of black people in the theatre." (He has never lacked ambition.) The piece's protagonist, Richard Patterson, is a rather uptight black professor of political philosophy, who is married to a white woman. Patterson relies on his wheat-paste tolerance--he's almost a parody of academic "whiteness"--to help him keep it together in a world that he thinks it's an achievement to belong to. It's hard to tell whether he knows that his docility is a stereotype of black behavior. Maybe it's all an act. Anyway, his world view gets majorly messed with when a black family, in blackface, and with names like Sambo, Mammy, and Topsy, move in next door. These tokens of minstrelsy are loud and disruptive, caricatures of the kind of blackness that Patterson has sought to escape. As tensions between the neighbors mount, certain questions arise, such as: What defines a black man if he has been shaped by racism's idea of him? And is black skin a mask that dictates behavior or does the mask free one to engage with the minstrelsy at the heart of American blackness? "Neighbors" didn't quite come together, because it couldn't: the stage can contain only so many ideas, and sometimes it felt as if Jacobs-Jenkins's weren't entirely worked through. He'd suffered some of the horrors of racism--no black man can avoid them--but he hadn't figured out how to embody that legacy; it took him some time to learn how to sculpt the flesh and blood that would support his characters and their provocations.

Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an assistant in The New Yorker's fiction department from 2007 to 2010, and it was through him that I first heard about Young Jean Lee's identity-based theatre pieces and Thomas Bradshaw's scripts about racism as a form of spiritual and physical debauchery. After I saw Jacobs-Jenkins's play "Appropriate," in 2014, I understood how committed he was to rooting around in and talking back to "the culture"--that is, the theatre history that was capable of producing him and, before him, Sam Shepard and Lorraine Hansberry and Eugene O'Neill, distinctly American voices that contributed to his own. "Appropriate," the story of a white family grappling with the death of its patriarch, is both an homage to and an investigation of writers like Shepard, who drew a map of this country through so many tired living rooms furnished with recrimination and repression.

The frenzy of "Appropriate" (there's a black secret in the attic, as there is in most of American life) led to the beautiful high hysteria of the brilliantly crafted "An Octoroon" (also 2014). From Dion Boucicault's 1859 play "The Octoroon," about a white Southerner who falls in love with a mixed-race woman, Jacobs-Jenkins fashioned a kind of theatre-essay, whose parentheses are filled with dialogue about performing blackness, the theatre as a live art, and the basic concerns that haunt the thinking mind trapped in a body that's defined by skin color, gender, or speech: life makes each of us a target for someone else. "An Octoroon" isn't just an alternative to the irony-free "black American theatre" of Hansberry and August Wilson; it's part of it--and part of many other things, too, because Jacobs-Jenkins's surrealism grows out of naturalism, the strange circumstances that make us open our mouths, hoping to be heard, even as we forget to listen. …

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