Branden Jacob-Jenkins

The button-pushing race satirist is suddenly also making his directorial debut.

All of a sudden, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has a lot on his shoulders. First, the playwright is laboring under an unwanted mantle—that of the provocateur. “I never call myself that!” he cries, throwing up his hands. “I never said I wanted to shock anybody!” While he tries to shrug off that title—one he was dubbed with after Neighbors, his vicious comedy about minstrelsy—he has another load to bear. Just two weeks before its first performance, his play The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroon has lost its director. In what everyone involved describes as a mutually agreed-upon parting, collaborating director Gavin Quinn of the Irish theater Pan Pan has walked away, and Jacobs-Jenkins will step into the breach for his first professional outing as a director.

The writer has made a surprisingly loud noise for someone so briefly on the scene. Not yet 30 (he refuses to be more specific), he got his master’s degree in performance studies from NYU in 2007, and then went to do the young playwright’s expected round of readings and development series. Suddenly this March, Jacobs-Jenkins took a flying leap into the spotlight thanks to the Public Theater Lab’s production of his still-in-progress Neighbors. When it opened to critics, Jacobs-Jenkins—seemingly overnight—became New York’s latest succs de scandale, with sold-out shows and a flurry of citywide attention. (Our own David Cote said, “It will make you scream, or ill, or both.”)

His comfortably anonymous days behind him, Jacobs-Jenkins turned his attention to a play that had long been an obsession, Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon. And the project plunked him right back in that shock-theater genre that so irritates him. Boucicault’s original was itself a flash point for controversy, wringing tears out of audiences over a tragic, romantic octoroon slave (the term refers to an eighth of “black blood” in a person of mixed race) and the white man who loves her.

Jacobs-Jenkins admits a certain helplessness at New York’s determination to make him a black provocateur: “How can I escape it? My parents met at an antique convention of black memorabilia. I grew up in a house surrounded by mammy dolls. For a long time, I never thought it was weird.” He laughs, “But I was having nightmares about mammies chasing me.”

No wonder, then, that his work naturally bubbles with disturbing racial constructs. In this production (as in the original), white actors play in black- or red-face, performance traditions that make modern audiences instinctively recoil. The playwright looks at all these knee-jerk reactions with a clinical eye, calling what he does “a form of a social experiment.” In Jacobs-Jenkins’s conversation, just as in his texts, you can hear his inner academic fighting with his inner showman. Even while he dissects “the historicity of racial representation,” he is also laughingly protesting: “Oh, God! I’m so pretentious. I’m trying to stop talking theory, I swear.”

It is this irrepressible intellectualism that provides the tension in a Jacobs-Jenkins work, even as the shows themselves violate taboos. After a long time writing “raceless dramas,” which he accredits to growing up “in the era of Captain Planet,” his interest has turned not so much to the outrages of racism but to racism as a lens for the study of theater. In a fully postmodern spirit, then, Jacobs-Jenkins has appropriated Boucicault’s text, keeping huge sections but interjecting his own humor, his own moments of “questioning the playwright.” Make no mistake, though, he still wants us riveted by the action—as one should be at a melodrama. “My nightmare is that I’ve made something ironic,” he shudders.

When it comes to the split with Quinn, however, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the melodrama to a minimum. “It was just the practical details of making theater with limited resources and limited time,” he explains with a sigh. “I’ve been in Berlin for the past three months on a Fulbright scholarship, and I take a lot of responsibility for the fact that, practically, it didn’t come together. I think we’re all just really sad.” Quinn agrees, eager to put the whole thing behind him. On the phone from Ireland, he insists, “It’s not a reflection on Branden; I won’t apportion blame. It happens, and it’s a pity.”

So while relationships remain intact, tyro director Jacobs-Jenkins is still in the middle of a whirlwind. “I have to go,” he apologizes. “I have to go scavenge some furniture for the set.” (Pan Pan’s set designer left with Quinn.) Luckily, the play itself—the author calls it “a machine”—can withstand this kind of craziness. “We did a workshop in January,” recalls Jacobs-Jenkins, “and we realized it still holds up. Now at P.S. 122, there’s room to explore. And luckily, it’s the rough edges that make downtown theater interesting.”

The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroon is at P.S. 122 through July 3.

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