Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays aren’t quite what they seem on the surface.
Or maybe a better way to say that is - they are everything they seem to be ... and more.
Take his play “Appropriate” or “Appropriate” that played at the Taper in 2015. (That was a couple years ago but stick with me - because he’s doing something very similar now). On its surface “Appropriate” seems to be another in a long line of white-family-crisis plays. We’re in the Southern ancestral home shortly after the patriarch dies. Siblings return to sell off the old plantation bringing with them all the family drama that accompanies grief and loss. It feels like another regional theater play - not wholly unlike “August Osage County” or a half dozen other white plays.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an African-American playwright.
The only African-Americans represented in “Appropriate” are in old photos of lynched slaves that, in a truly inspired bit of irony, may be this family’s only valuable possession.
In Mr. Jenkins play “Gloria” currently at the Echo Theatre Company, he’s up to the same complicated subversions.
On the surface, “Gloria” is an office politics play. Set in the cubicles of a New York magazine, the play opens with the acerbic chatter of a trio of junior assistants terrified of turning 30. It’s talk about career and exit strategies and who got drunk last night. It’s funny and clever and the same type of dialogue that fills regional theaters across the country.
But there’s something else …
Sitting behind this trio of backstabbing assistants is the intern: Miles. Miles is black. Miles is wearing headphones - just observing, listening. He’s not really part of these conversations. He’s not really being asked to do any work, just stuff like grabbing a purple vitamin water from the vending machine.
This same actor will play a Starbucks barista in Act two. Again, he’s there in the background of the scene. A lesser playwright wouldn’t even include this character, or it’d be simply a walk-on role but Branden Jacobs-Jenkins just has him standing there behind two white women talking about important white-women things. It’s awkward. Why is he there?
He has nothing to do with the scene but he has everything to do with the play - and the deeply layered and subversive social commentary of “Gloria.”
“Gloria” isn’t a play about race in the same way that race isn’t the reason our cities and workplaces and culture look the way they do - which is to say race is ever-present.
But really “Gloria” isn’t a play *only* about race. It’s a play built around a plot point surprise that will distract you. I won’t give it away because it is shocking, but don’t let it distract you any more than you would a sensational headline.
Mr. Jacob-Jenkins is trying to make us examine something deeper than the sensational. He’s asking us, like any great playwright, to consider how we treat one another and what we value as a culture. That’s not easy.
And like that intern or barista awkwardly observing in the background, “Gloria” can get a little uncomfortable but stick with it. Mr. Jacob-Jenkins is trying to tell us how to heal by showing us how deeply our disease runs.
“Gloria” plays at the Echo Theatre Company in Atwater Village through October 21st.
Devere Rogers. Photo credit: Darrett Sanders