What It’s Like to Wake Up a “Genius”

Special Features   What It’s Like to Wake Up a “Genius” Young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins shares his thoughts on being named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

For 35 years, the MacArthur Foundation has been changing the lives of outstanding individuals through its Fellowship program. This year, a new class of fellows will receive a no-strings-attached $625,000 “Genius” grant for their exceptional creativity and potential—and among them is playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. On the morning of September 22, while alone in his apartment, Jacobs-Jenkins received an unexpected call from the MacArthur Foundation informing him that he was a 2016 Fellow.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Monica Simoes

“It’s one of those things where they call you out of the blue. It really is a huge surprise,” says the playwright. “I was very confused. I thought I was hallucinating the call, but it was real apparently.”

“I’m feeling shocked, and I’m feeling very lucky,” he continues. The young writer has been making waves Off-Broadway with a number of hit plays. His 2012 family drama Appropriate was nominated alongside Fun Home for the Kennedy Prize for Drama; while his widely acclaimed twist on a 19th-century melodrama, An Octoroon (2014), sold-out two engagements in New York. Last year’s Gloria both shocked and delighted audiences at the Vineyard Theatre and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ work has garnered both critical acclaim and industry recognition. In 2015, he was honored with the bi-annual $50,000 Steinberg Playwright Award alongside Dominique Morisseau and, earlier this year, was a recipient of the prestigious $150,000 Windham-Campbell Prize at Yale University.

“I now understand the phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches,’” he admits. “That is a very real feeling. You’re so thankful and so filled with gratitude, but you feel a little like, ‘Oh my God!’ ... I’m just thrilled that people seem to care enough about the work of the playwright and the theatre to support it.”

“I’m feeling very flattered,” continues the playwright. “I just saw who the other winners are, and there are some really incredible artists who are being honored. I’m flattered to be in their company.” The 2016 class of Fellows also includes theatre artist and educator Anne Basting, composer Julia Wolfe, poet Claudia Rankine and cultural historian Josh Kun. Last year, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was among the recipients.

Jacobs-Jenkins says that despite the generous grant, he won't be giving up his day job. The playwright runs the Playwriting program at Hunter College along with Annie Baker and Brighde Mullins, something he remains very dedicated to. “The temptation is totally there, but I feel like teaching has become a significant part of my practice,” he says. “I feel very devoted to those students and that work. It’s not something I want to abandon.”

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play War recently finished an Off-Broadway engagement at LCT3, and his new work Everybody will premiere at the Signature Theatre in January 2017.

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