One Playwright's 'Obligation' To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S. : Code Switch Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written a trilogy of provocative and fantastical explorations of race. His latest, based on a 1859 melodrama, pokes fun at conventions while raising difficult questions.
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One Playwright's 'Obligation' To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S.

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One Playwright's 'Obligation' To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S.

One Playwright's 'Obligation' To Confront Race And Identity In The U.S.

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The work of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is funny and heartbreaking, in part because it confronts race and identity in unexpected ways. They've also earned him critical acclaim in New York and across the country. At 30 years old, he has already won off-Broadway's top honor, the Obie Award. His latest play is called "An Octoroon." Jeff Lunden says it's a re-imagining of a 19th-century melodrama.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: At the beginning of "An Octoroon," a man dressed only in his underwear walks on stage, takes a long look at the audience and says, morosely...


CHRIS MYERS: (As Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) Hi, everyone. I'm a black playwright. I don't know exactly what that means, but I'm here to tell you a story.

LUNDEN: This excerpt comes from a rehearsal. In performance, the audience cracks up. And that's the line that playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is trying to tread: between poking fun at theatrical convention and making people think about race, labels and identity.

BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS: Because, it's like, well, what makes me a black - I mean, I guess that I'm black, but then it's like, why isn't Sam Shepard a white playwright? It just feels like it's qualifying something, and I don't know why or what it's qualifying exactly. Like, I can understand it as a descriptive term, but I don't know what it means as a profession, you know?

LUNDEN: Over the past five years, the young playwright has established himself in the profession with the trilogy of highly provocative and fantastical explorations of race in America. In "Neighbors," a family of minstrels in blackface moves in next to a contemporary mixed-race family. In "Appropriate," a white family discovers their dead father belonged to the KKK. And "An Octoroon" is a loose adaptation of a melodrama written more than 150 years ago that deals with identity and race.

JACOBS-JENKINS: They are all kind of like me dealing with something very specific, which has to do with the history of theater and blackness in America and form. And also, like, my obligation as a human being with regards to any of these themes, much less to playwriting.

BEN BRANTLEY: He starts off from self-consciousness, which you would think would be a crippling place for a playwright to begin.

LUNDEN: Ben Brantley is chief drama critic for The New York Times.

BRANTLEY: But his self-consciousness isn't just particular; it's national, it's universal. And it's the self-consciousness of realizing that we don't have the vocabulary, the tools to discuss race.

LUNDEN: Brantley put "An Octoroon" on the top of his best play list last year after it was staged at a tiny off-off-Broadway theater. The melodrama on which it's based is by 19th-century Irish-Anglo playwright Dion Boucicault. It tells the story of a young man who's about to inherit a plantation and falls in love with a woman who's an octoroon - seven-eighths white, one-eighth black. Jacobs-Jenkins uses whole sections of the florid original dialogue.


AMBER GRAY: (As character) That - that is the dark, fatal mark of Cain, of the blood that feeds my heart. One drop in eight is black. Bright red as the rest may be, that one drop poisons all the rest. Those seven bright drops give me love like yours, hope like yours, ambition like yours. Passions hung from life like dew drops on morning flowers. But the one black drop gives me despair, for I'm an unclean thing. I'm an octoroon.

LUNDEN: She's saying that to a black actor in whiteface. Director Sarah Benson points out that, in the original, all the parts had to be played by white actors.

SARAH BENSON: Of course, the deep irony about the whole situation is there wasn't a black person in the room. All of the actors on stage were white people in various degrees of blackface.

LUNDEN: Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins says when he read the original, he was struck by Boucicault's apparent understanding of those different degrees of color.

JACOBS-JENKINS: Not every person of color is the same shade or looks the same or is the same, you know? And that was, like, so profound to me. And I was like, right, because it's about masks. He was describing the mask that he wanted his actors to play, because the theater is a place where you're supposed to transform, where you're supposed to, like, experience the magic of, like, being something but not being something, you know? And that's all about identity. That's all about race as we received it.

LUNDEN: Jacobs-Jenkins is not so much adapting Boucicault's play as sampling it, like a piece of music, so he mixes the original dialogue with contemporary speech.


MARSHA STEPHANIE BLAKE: (As Dido) How do you know Chris and Darnell, girl?

JOCELYN BIOH: (As Minnie) Oh, you know, Chris was messing with Trish over in the sugar mill for a little bit. And I met him and Darnell through her at a slave mixer over by the river before, you know, she dumped him because she couldn't deal with the long distance.

BLAKE: (As Dido) OK, OK.

LUNDEN: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins says his modernist take on Boucicault has more in common with the original than you might think. Though the two playwrights are centuries apart and of different races, their goal is to entertain the audience.

JACOBS-JENKINS: An audience wants to enjoy itself. And that's what Boucicault - that's all he talked about was, like, it's about an audience wanting to feel something. And they want to feel it, so give it to them. And if you get to, like, teach them a lesson or let them know something else, then that's even better.

LUNDEN: And Jacobs-Jenkins hopes "An Octoroon" will do just that. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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