Why You Need to Know the Name Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Special Features   Why You Need to Know the Name Branden Jacobs-Jenkins The playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist turns in another singular work with his new play, Everybody.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The casting call that Signature Theatre posted for Everybody literally was for everybody: all Equity actors of any ethnicity or gender to play parts like “God/Others,” “Death/Others,” and “Fellowship/Others.”

By any other name, Everybody is Everyman, the 15th-century morality tale that has been made freshly accessible by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Faithful, in his fashion, to the original classic, the saga chronicles the last days of a character representing all of mankind—Everyman—who is summoned to heaven to tally up the good and bad of his life for admittance. Naturally, he wants a solid character witness to accompany him, but none of his nearest and dearest (Cousin, Kindred, Goods, Fellowship) care to oblige.

Brooke Bloom, Chris Perfetti, Marylouise Burke, Lakisha Michelle May, Michael Braun, Lilyana Tiare Cornell, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Jocelyn Bioh heeded this casting call, but who or what they will be playing won’t be determined until curtain time.

“The concept,” explains Jacobs-Jenkins, “is that every night there’ll be a different Everyman, chosen by lottery, so the cast will shift a lot. This may be an insane idea. We’re assuming all these lovely actors are going to memorize the entire script.”

Now in previews with direction by Lila Neugebauer, this contemporary riff on the arcane allegory is Jacobs-Jenkins’ second offering in Signature’s Residency Five program—which promises playwrights three full productions—and he admits to some nervousness. “I wonder what people who saw my first play there, Appropriate, will be expecting. I try to make something that feels different to me, but I can’t ever have expectations that people will go along for the ride.”

Actually, followers already know to expect the unexpected from him. Since he first appeared on the New York scene in 2010 with Neighbors—a suburban clash about an interracial family living next door to a black family in blackface—he has created a drama about the half-black babies left in Germany by World War II Yanks (War); a twisty drama about a chic and clawingly competitive New York workplace (Gloria); and a latter-day plantation opus haunted by a patriarch’s lynched ghosts (Appropriate) while also adapting a 19th-century antebellum melodrama with An Octoroon.

For Jacobs-Jenkins, there’s little distinction between adapting a play and creating one—primarily because he can’t resist commenting on what he’s adapting. “For me, adaptation is about challenging the original play. I’m not translating it for an audience so much as actually trying to explore what this piece meant in its context and what it might mean now. That’s my process, starting there and unpacking that way.”

He also admits to tinkering with plays after their initial production, a habit he is hoping to soon break.

“My teacher, Marsha Norman, says, ‘You have two years to really write a play. Anything you do after that is basically ruining the play. You’re not the same person,’” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “I hope that I finally get to do that play where I feel I did all I wanted to do.”

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