NEW YORK — Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s path to national distinction began with zigs and zags around the theaters and arts programs of Washington. It was at Studio Theatre that, as a child, he saw his first professional production, a bravura staging of “Waiting for Godot” with African American actors playing Samuel Beckett’s famous existential clowns.
“My father fell asleep, but I was glued to it the whole time,” he says. It was during a class at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, run by a local theater maker the kids knew as “Mr. McNugget,” that the drama bug began evolving into a virus.
Fiction writing had been his first passion, stoked by the short stories and novels he devoured. “I spent my lunch money on used books,” he says. But somehow, theater kept veering into his field of vision. At the writing program for teenagers he attended for five summers at the University of Virginia, “the playwrights were always the coolest kids,” he says. Later, when he was an undergraduate at Princeton, a creative writing professor asked him to walk back with him to his office.
“He turned to me and said: ‘I think you’re a playwright. And I think you need to deal with that.’ ”
Even with some difficult fits and starts, Jacobs-Jenkins, who grew up in Washington’s Takoma Park neighborhood, has dealt with it, and quite well. This year, in what amounted to his most important recognition to date, his play, the tragicomic “Gloria,” set in a magazine office where an unspeakable horror occurs, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The other finalists posed formidable competition: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the eventual winner, and Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” which won the Tony Award this month for best play, during the same ceremony at which “Hamilton” was crowned best musical.
To have made it at the tender age of 31 into such an elite circle is no minor achievement. Moreover, it’s only one of the indicators of Jacobs-Jenkins’s deserving inclusion in a cadre of younger playwrights putting a refreshing stamp on American theater, a group that includes Karam, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Sam Hunter, Matthew Lopez and Anne Washburn. Other evidence of the singularity of his talent and the depth of his formidable intellect is on view at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where his scalding antebellum satire, “An Octoroon,” ends a well-received run this weekend.
That engagement coincides with the debut at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater of his latest piece, “War,” a comedy in which, in characteristic style, he explores the confoundingly and eternally unsettled perceptions of racial identity, as embodied by the family of a dying black woman.
As Ben Brantley put it in his New York Times review of “War”: “His specialty is the ambiguity of self, particularly as defined by skin color, and the futility as well as the necessity of looking for solid answers.”
“Ambiguity” is an apt word for Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramatic metier. His ironic use of historic theatrical themes and devices to place on a continuum the racial anxieties of our own time is indeed a hallmark. In “Appropriate,” a comedy Woolly Mammoth staged in 2013, Jacobs-Jenkins invoked the work of a range of playwrights, from Tennessee Williams to Tracy Letts, to tell the story — in hilarious fashion — of a Southern white family coming to grips with a dead patriarch’s Klan membership. (The decision by an African American playwright to write a play consisting entirely of white characters came across itself, as the play’s title suggests, as a sly turning of the tables on cultural appropriation.)
For “An Octoroon,” which is an adaptation of a 19th-century plantation melodrama, “The Octoroon,” by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, Jacobs-Jenkins invokes a tasteless vestige of minstrelsy, the tradition of white actors putting on blackface, as both a kind of homage and a critique. It’s impossible to imagine anyone but a playwright of color being able to get away with this, which may have been one of Jacobs-Jenkins’s points. In his sardonic renovation of the 1859 play, the application of cosmetic ethnicity becomes an equal-opportunity transgressive act: While a Latino actor wears blackface, a white actor playing a Native American smears on red makeup, and a black actor appears in whiteface.
“What I’m really surprised by is Branden’s reverence for the [original] play, while at the same time his disdain is equal,” says Nataki Garrett, director of Woolly’s “Octoroon.” “And they come with equal measure in the writing. His play poses a very honest question about identity in the 21st century, and uses it to ask, what does it mean to have a codified existence?
No writer wants to be pigeonholed as a one-issue wonder, and in fact, Jacobs-Jenkins has swerved in plays such as “Gloria” — which draws on aspects of his own experience as an intern at the New Yorker — away from the matters examined in “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon.” (Although “Gloria,” too, explores a type of appropriation, in the guise of a writer who oversteps by asserting in a memoir his role as a central figure in the horror.) At the same time, Jacobs-Jenkins observes that African American playwrights, on the lofty order of August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks on down, have found it hard to avoid weaving the narratives of oppression and the legacy of slavery prominently into their plays.
“I will not deny that this is a significant bedrock of my work,” Jacobs-Jenkins says, sitting recently in a cafe on the periphery of the Theater District. The unique nature of black experience in this country “requires us to make a statement about a perceived idea of history,” he adds. “I still feel like I’m in that conversation.”
The theater impulse may have been triggered by a grandmother in Arkansas, Helen Tate, the first family member to go to college and an amateur dramatist in her own right, writing Passion plays for local churches.
Words were, for him, too, always his life’s blood. As a kid he was a champion speller who tied for 18th place one year in the National Spelling Bee, a record finish, he says, for any Washington entrant. He was also a bit of a bookish know-it-all, even around his mother, Patricia Jacobs, a Harvard Law School graduate who raised him after his parents split up. (Benjamin Jenkins, his father, retired as a dentist for Maryland’s prison system.)
“My mother had a wall of degrees in our house, and she would walk me up to the wall and say, ‘When you have this many degrees, you can tell me what to do,’ ” he says.
Uncertain of exactly what to do with his life, he graduated from St. John’s College High School in Washington and enrolled at Princeton, leaving four years later with a degree in anthropology and certificates in creative writing and theater. A year after graduating, he was accepted into the master’s program in performance studies at New York University, an interval that served as his invitation to the brimming menu of downtown theater.
But his introduction to the life of a playwright, at the Public Theater, in 2010, was for him a disaster. That production of his early play “Neighbors” featured black actors in blackface, an aspect of the piece that became the focus of an article in the Times. It was subsequently panned by the paper as “simultaneously overheated and undercooked,” a reception that sent him into a tailspin.
“I’d written it thinking it would never be produced,” he says. As fate and talent would have it, though, the play “got me some fellowships and awards.” After the run of “Neighbors,” he used some of the money to move to Berlin, where he thought he might settle in and disappear.
“The ‘Neighbors’ thing was hard for him,” says Benj Pasek, a close friend and one of the songwriters of the hit musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which started at Arena Stage and is moving to Broadway in the fall. He’d met Jacobs-Jenkins at a workshop out west and loved his new friend’s embrace of culture both high and low. “Watching Bravo and watching Pinter” is how he describes the two sides of Jacobs-Jenkins’s artistic nature.
The German interlude gave the playwright needed perspective. When he returned to New York and started writing again, Jacobs-Jenkins lived for a while on Pasek’s couch. And by 2013, when favorable reviews started appearing for “Appropriate” and later, “An Octoroon,” the embrace by the theater community became steadily stronger. Although the future is unclear for “Gloria,” which opened last year to glowing notices at off-Broadway’s nonprofit Vineyard Theatre, it is not difficult to imagine it finding its way to a commercial run.
Not that Jacobs-Jenkins is about to abandon his penchant for sowing discomfort.
“I’m not interested in a linear tale of divorce in the black community,” he says. “My dream audience member would turn to the audience member next to them and say, ‘What just happened to me?’ ”