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Posts Tagged ‘Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’

American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins continues to impress, with this play the best of the three we’ve seen here. I’m vey fond of family dramas and American playwrights gave us the best in the 20th Century, from Eugene ONeill through Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to Sam Shepherd. Now Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a contemporary one.

It’s set in an Arkansas plantation home where the head of the Lafayette family has recently died. His children, Toni, Bo and Frank, Bo’s wife Rachel, Frank’s girlfriend River, Toni’s son Rhys and Bo & Rachel’s children Cassidy and Ainsley have come for the auction of the house and sale of its contents. Their dad was a hoarder, so they first have to attempt to declutter and in doing so come across some photos which, if they are their dad’s, mean he wasn’t the man they thought he was.

Bo is a seemingly successful businessman who has apparently been financing his father’s final years, Toni is a single mother who’s been providing more practical support. Frank, now called Franz, is the black sheep, last to leave home and the longest to be dependent on their father, with a history of drink, drugs and worse. No-one knew where he was for many years until now. He’s under the spell of new age River and has ostensibly come to ask for forgiveness. Emotions run high, a whole load of skeletons leave cupboards and secrets and lies run amok. There’s even an air of a ghostly presence.

It’s superbly written and expertly plotted, with crackling dialogue. Ola Ince’s production is edgy and atmospheric, with loud sudden scene breaks that I found heightened the tension, though others jumped and / or were irritated by them. Fly Davis’ faded mansion is superb; the stage management deserve an award for decluttering it in the interval. Anna Watson’s excellent lighting and Donato Wharton’s atmospheric sound design play a key role. The diverse siblings are superbly characterised by Steven Mackintosh, Edward Hogg and especially Monica Dolan with another of her star turns. The rest of the ensemble is outstanding.

A great evening of drama from a playwright who, at only 34, the same age as Tennessee Williams was when A Doll’s House hit Broadway, has already delivered six plays, and based on the three we’ve seen is clearly going to have a monumental career The only remaining questions are – when will we see the other three and what’s next?

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Just five weeks after seeing his UK debut Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre, there I was at Hampstead Theatre seeing the entirely different but just as impressive Gloria, which does prove Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a major new playwriting talent, though how I’m going to write about this one without spoiling it I don’t know………

We’re with the ‘assistants’ in the outer office of a magazine publisher where everyone seems to be playing politics to further their careers, except long-serving Lorin in the next office and Gloria, who everyone seems to see as a bit weird. Dean is the only one who went to Gloria’s party the night before, and he only went because he thought the others were going. We’re lulled into a false sense of security until there’s a major incident in the office as Act I closes. When we return we meet two of the characters from Act One, and another we hadn’t seen, to see how they are responding to earlier events and how they, and the world, reacts to and processes such things in this day and age. It ends very suddenly, perhaps too suddenly.

The change of tone is indeed dramatic, from everyday life in a modern office to cynical, tasteless exploitation of events. Like Octoroon, its structurally clever and very unpredictable. They make a big thing of avoiding spoilers, to the point of sealing four pages of the programme which you can have broken by the ushers at the interval; a theatrical first, I think. Michael Longhurst’s staging and Lizzie Clachan’s design serve the play well and there are six fine actors, three of which play two roles and two play three. I first saw Kae Alexander in Kiss Me Kate in her final year at GSMD, then she impressed me in the Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan, now she’s hugely impressive as both Kendra and Jenna. Bayo Gbadamosi impresses too in three very different roles as intern, barista and media darling.

I’m now waiting for his next play with more than a touch of anticipation.

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This is one of the most audacious flights of theatrical imagination I’ve ever seen. Young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins arrives on these shores with a big bang. I can’t wait for his next play, which fortunately won’t be long as its coming up at Hampstead Theatre before this one even ends.

An Octoroon is someone who is one-eighth black, in this case Zoe, daughter of the plantation owner’s uncle and a slave, who lives on the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana. Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault wrote the original play in the mid nineteenth century and Jacobs-Jenkins has given it an extraordinary contemporary spin, which starts with a prologue from an actor playing Jacobs-Jenkins, who is then joined by one playing Boucicault. It’s some twenty minutes before we start the play itself, a cocktail of contemporary and period drama which almost defies description, faithful to the original but critiquing its treatment of race.

The Terrebonne plantation is bankrupt and both the property and the slaves have to be put up for sale. Southern Belle Dora has designs on George, the heir of the plantation, but he’s smitten with Zoe. Marrying Dora would save the plantation, marrying Zoe would be illegal. Neighbour M’Closky is our baddie; he’s killed slave Paul to intercept a letter which would also save the plantation and ensures Zoe is up for sale as a slave so that he can buy her. Br’er Rabbit makes a few appearances, but I’m not sure why. Both Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays have a tragic ending, but when Boucicault transferred his to London it was apparently changed to a happy one.

Ken Nwosu is terrific as Jacobs-Jenkins and as both George and M’Closky in white-face. Kevin Trainor is excellent too as Boucicault and as Indian Wahnotee in red-face, auctioneer Lafouche and the voice of ship-owner Ratts, who is played by a dressmaker’s dummy! Alistair Toovey in black-face also shines in very athletic performances as two slaves.  The five ladies – Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole, Cassie Clare, Celeste Dodwell and Iola Evans – are all superb. Ned Bennett’s production is like theatrical fireworks, energetic, surprising, and highly inventive.

A highly original piece that anyone interested in contemporary drama should catch.

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