Branden Jacobs-Jenkins by Hilton Als​

BOMB 142 Winter 2018
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Austin Smith in An Octoroon, 2015, directed by Sarah Benson. Photo by Gerry Goodstein. Courtesy of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn.

I first met Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the New Yorker in 2007. He was in his early twenties then, and it was always interesting to visit his section of the editorial floor—he was an assistant in the fiction department—to listen to him talk about his various interests: fiction, of course, but also theatre and performance. At the time Branden had a life as a performer I didn’t really know about specifically but wasn’t surprised to discover. He was interested in all aspects of performance, and what the theater said about society in general and the New York art scene in particular. His perspective was refreshing and enlightening. I was just learning how to critique theater work, and before long Branden was introducing me to the work of young playwrights such as Thomas Bradshaw, Young Jean Lee, and Annie Baker, artists who broadened my understanding, not to say view, of the form. For a time before and after Branden left the New Yorker, we saw a number of shows together, and it was always fun and soulful to talk about the productions afterward. Our lives became busy after that, so in some sense this conversation is a record of the spirit of those days.

Hilton Als

Hilton Als Why playwriting? Were you interested in literature as a student, always reading?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins I’d got the idea of being a writer into my head at a young age—a fiction writer, specifically. Maybe it was a by-product of binge-reading all this Stephen King, starting when I was young—like eleven—but that wasn’t an unheard-of phenomenon among black kids growing up in Washington DC.

HA Because it’s often science fiction, which felt like realism to you.

BJJ Yeah, exactly. And the horror!

HA Carrie? That’s my sister.

BJJ DC was the murder capital of America in the ’90s! Though the actual story of my literary pretensions probably begins with my mother sending me to the UVA Young Writers Workshop when I was thirteen. I initially resisted it—as it seemed like just another camp my working single parent was shipping me off to in lieu of an actual summer break—but that place wound up changing my life. I went back there every summer for the next five years.

HA Wait. What was this program?

BJJ This three-week summer thing where a bunch of teenage writers descend upon an empty college dorm in Charlottesville and take writing workshops in some genre—poetry, fiction, songwriting, etcetera. It still exists, and it was very surreal for me—very formative. I think it’s where I first heard the word playwright. I remember having my first profound reading experience with a story called “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

HA What’s it about?

BJJ Well, in the future, there’s a room in every home that’s essentially a proto-version of virtual reality. And the story is told from the point of view of the parents of these kids who are spending an ungodly amount of time in theirs, specifically in this simulation of this sort-of-Serengeti—this African veldt. And they’re always just standing there looking at something in the far distance, and it turns out they’re watching a simulation of their parents being eaten by lions. I think. I should reread it. I bet my memory is rewriting it. Anyway, that led to this love affair with Bradbury and The Illustrated Man and short stories in general. From him, I moved onto J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. I remember having my little mind blown by “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Of course, I’ve looked back since and thought, Really? But, at the time, I didn’t know a story could be like that—that you didn’t need ghosts and spaceships and murder to make feelings happen.

HA What’s that wonderful line? “Now run and play, pussy. Mommy’s going up to the hotel and have a Martini with Mrs. Hubbel. I’ll bring you the olive.” It’s all dialogue.

BJJ Mostly, and very imagistic. But there’s a dark turn.

HA She keeps trying to get a stain out of a blouse, working her cuticles down.

BJJ Then, at some point during my bajillion re-reads, I stumbled upon the copyright page of Nine Stories, which informed me that “Bananafish” had first appeared in something called the New Yorker. And then I kept seeing that name—New Yorker—and saw Bradbury had published stories there, too—and Stephen King. So I made my mother buy me a copy from some newsstand. I remember it was a Halloween issue with a sexy witch riding a broom on the cover and inside was a story called “Beulah Berlin, an A-Z” by William Boyd. Each section started with a letter of the alphabet, and I just was like, “You can do this?!” After that, I read every copy I could get my hands on. I’d buy back issues for a dime from the public library and spend entire weekends reading them on the floor of my attic bedroom—but only the fiction. I still think about those stories all the time, like this Andrea Lee story, “Brothers and Sisters Around the World.”

HA The one where she buys a whore for the husband?

BJJ That’s “Interesting Women.” In this one, the narrator is a black woman on this long vacation with her white husband and mixed kids in Madagascar, and there are these local women on the beach catcalling and bullying her; then one day she just slaps one of them. It’s insane. Reading things like this, I was astonished. All I had known were the dead authors I was assigned in school readers. These people were alive and writing stories and didn’t care about English class. They were writing for some other reason.

So, obviously, I was very bookish. And probably unbearably pretentious. Parallel to this was an evolving relationship to the theater, which was also the product of my mother sending me to a camp—the Capital Hill Arts Workshop. We’d spend the day playing theater games, doing visual arts, and doing music.

HA What were these games comprised of?

BJJ Just improv and physical games, like pretending to play with a ball. The stakes were low. Theater was a fun thing to do, but I never thought of it as a profession. Then I went off to high school and, initially, had a hard time.

HA What was so hard about it?

BJJ I’d come from a very small, very progressive grade school, Roots, where social stereotyping didn’t quite exist. Nerd, bully, cheerleader, jock—those labels meant nothing because the community was just too small to sustain that kind of interest in hierarchy—there were like ten students in my grade, all black. So being bookish wasn’t a liability. In fact, it was encouraged. The school was also Afrocentric in its pedagogy, which was a very DC thing.

HA So you knew you were black? (laughter)

BJJ Yes! Thank God! I spent the entirety of my formative years in that environment—K through 8—and it may have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. Our teachers were all like former Panthers or Pan-Africanists or just straight-up hippies—I mean, like, dreadlock city. We called them “Baba” and “Mama.” We celebrated Kwanzaa. There was this huge emphasis on the centering of black life and history. Our literature textbook only contained black writing, and because no one had any money, it was the same textbook every year of middle school. The first thing assigned was always “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara. At some point, there would be an excerpt from The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, which we could make neither head nor tail of. There were these amazing field trips—to the various Smithsonians, to the Blacks in Wax museum. I remember they once took the entire school to see Amistad, and it was like a horror show! Kids were jumping up out of their seats and running out of the theater, screaming—

HA Throwing up on each other. (laughter) So this was an early racial trauma for you, and it was aesthetic too.

BJJ Totally. There was also this school-wide recital at the end of every year. The primary school kids always gave the same presentation in which they were dressed up as Famous Black People in History and herded through some sort of Black History Parade. In retrospect, this was probably hilarious, but I have this memory of being perpetually cast as Martin Luther King and giving some digest version of the “I Have a Dream” speech, maybe because there’s something “literate” about the way he’s perceived?

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Chris Myers, Amber Gray, Zoë Winters, and Danny Wolohan in An Octoroon, 2014, directed by Sarah Benson. Photo by Pavel Antonov. Courtesy of Soho Rep, Brooklyn.

HA And probably because of the way you spoke.

BJJ Anyway, it was definitely my first taste of the stage. And, interestingly, it conflated history with illusion, which I think about all the time.

HA When you were reading about King to prep for the role, how did you feel?

BJJ “Prep?!” I was a child! I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. The teacher says, “Memorize this.” The morning of, your mother is squeezing you into a Sunday suit, painting a moustache on your upper lip with mascara, and there you go. It was like drag.

But that was Roots. At the same time, there was a lot of freedom for self-direction. In my last two years, I got really into spelling bees, all on my own. Everyone was shocked by how I kept getting farther and farther each year, and I think the school realized the world of competitive spelling might be good PR for them, so eventually they were like, “We need you

to win!”

HA Shit, you had black pressure!

BJJ I did! They gave me a room in the principal’s office, bought me this gigantic dictionary. I’d record myself spelling words and play it back at night on a Walkman while I slept. That year, I got all the way to the National Bee and placed like eighteenth. I think I’m actually the first contestant to use their hand to “ghost write.”

Anyway, I wound up going from that to this half-military Catholic school. Suddenly there were hundreds of kids—black, white, Filipino, Latinx. Initially, I didn’t quite understand how to operate. Socializing depended upon a kind of performance of self I just couldn’t seem to grasp. The story goes that I didn’t smile once my entire freshmen year until I was cast in the school play. Then high school plays and musicals became my “thing.” But, the whole time, I was always hyperaware that my real ambition was to write fiction, and I went off to college to study that.

HA You did?

BJJ Princeton was recruiting arts students at the time, I think. They’d gotten my name, I’m sure, through some mailing list or writing contest I’d entered. I went sight-unseen because they offered me the best financial aid package, but I eventually learned they had this insane creative writing faculty. Chang-Rae Lee, whose work I’d been reading in the New Yorker, had just been hired. Edmund White’s work I sort of knew through some furtive reading around queerness. Joyce Carol Oates, obviously. Toni Morrison, though she was essentially retired by that time. Anyway, I hit the ground running, took every class with every writer I was remotely interested in. And then I had this somewhat traumatic workshop experience. I’d brought in this long story about two brothers dealing with a schizophrenic mother. It was written in the first person. And, near the end of class, it got really quiet and suddenly the teacher was like, “Um, I guess the last thing I’m really wondering about is, well, what race are these characters?” That triggered this very clumsy debate about “colorblind” writing, which I couldn’t even participate in because I was still reeling with some sense of shame that I had done something wrong but didn’t understand what. I was trying to wrap my head around the idea that someone would walk into something I’d written with an anxiety that I was obligated to deal with—namely, his need to know which race the people were before he could, I don’t know, invest in what was happening to them? Whereas I could read all his books and—

HA —never have to ask him that?

BJJ Yeah. And, like, Jane Eyre wasn’t running around talking about how white she was. So I left that class feeling a little messed up. Unconsciously or otherwise, I started telling myself I should take a break from fiction and try a new genre. I enrolled in this playwriting class under the pretense of “working on my dialogue,” but then, once I was in it, I started writing these things that were coming from a place the fiction wasn’t. I was already working through questions of representation and trying to find ways to evade those questions—like using stock characters from commedia and putting them in these violent, contemporary situations.

HA Commedia characters are like Punch and Judy, right?

BJJ Kind of. Like Pierrot, Columbina, Scapino. Anyway, something was unlocking for me—and the work was coming from a more electric and mysterious place. At some point, my professor, Robert Sandberg said, “I think you might be a playwright, and you should figure out how to deal with that.” And I remember parting ways with him and feeling my mission in life had changed—suddenly I had to hurry off and read every play in the library, just to understand what plays were.

HA When you look back, what did your fiction lack that your plays had?

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Austin Smith and Amber Gray in An Octoroon, 2015, directed by Sarah Benson. Photo by Gerry Goodstein. Courtesy of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn.

BJJ I think the fiction suffered from having read the New Yorker too much. I would write from the point of view of the wife of a guy with multiple sclerosis dealing with a hawk problem on her property, so the hawks become a symbol for their dying marriage—shit like that. I thought I was supposed to write domestic stories about race-free people dealing with raceless illness, racelessly.

I remember being very shocked when other students—every one of them white—would bring in things that felt like thinly veiled biography. I was like, “This is so boring! Why don’t they just make stuff up?” I was mystified because my experience with short fiction had been one of constant wonder but also constant alienation, like having to project myself into an Other, which maybe was a good thing in the end. I was used to reading about presumably white people dealing with shit. But I wouldn’t fully understand what it might be implying emotionally—let alone socially or politically. Unconsciously, I may have been discrediting or undervaluing my own existence, though not in an active way.

HA Because someone had said you didn’t matter. Society, in fact, had said, “Who the fuck are you?”

BJJ Right. In theory. Or it just never occurred to me to ask where I was in these imaginative acts. I didn’t have an illness, and I wasn’t divorced or forty years old. I wasn’t yet aware of how the space of the imaginary is racialized—which is what a lot of my plays wrestle with. It’s a little like that thing James Baldwin talks about where he’s like, “Wait!? I’m an Indian? But I thought I was a cowboy.” At least, in the theater, the “blackness” of a black body portraying a “character” is, in a sense, undeniable. Also, something conceptual in theater was scratching my intellect in a way the literary fiction I’d been exposed to just wasn’t. With the exception of maybe Toni Morrison.

HA Did you feel closer to black female writers at that time, like Morrison or Toni Cade Bambara?

BJJ Well, the black male canon certainly felt very strange. I was told to read Native Son for some sort of revelation of self but had no instinct for the performance of masculinity in that world. I read Invisible Man and wasn’t quite sophisticated enough for its allegory—like I couldn’t “crack the code.” But then Daphne Brooks came along. Her African American theater class appeared in the course catalog shortly after this workshop micro-trauma, right on time. Life-changing!

HA So she showed you there was a real tradition of blackness?

BJJ She opened the door. Her whole thing was about tracing this conceptual path of the black body. I’d never thought of that as a site for investigation. Suddenly, I had all sorts of interesting permission. She walked us through every decade of American history since the Civil War, showing us how there were correlative developments in the idea of “black drama” or “black performance,” which was somehow a case for drama, or performance as a whole, being reflective of or tied to history—

HA It grows out of history.

BJJ Exactly. It could be important. I was also coming to terms with anti-blackness not being an invisible hallucination isolated black people are having on a daily basis; it was actually a defining weave in the fabric of American culture and life. Though I did do this fucked up thing in her class: I made a handout where I put all these black playwrights in order from darkest to lightest skinned. I wanted to talk about how we could read it in terms of success.

HA Ooh! That’s brilliant!

BJJ But, honestly, I think the beginning of my career was the first day of Daphne’s class. I’ll never forget her saying, “I had two options for how to start this class: minstrelsy or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I chose Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was such a provocation! Like why didn’t we go through door number one?! What was behind door number one?!

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Danny Wolohan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Jocelyn Bioh in An Octoroon, 2014, directed by Sarah Benson. Photo by Pavel Antonov. Courtesy of Soho Rep, Brooklyn.

HA From there you went to NYU to do performance studies, right?

BJJ Yeah, literally two weeks after graduating from college, so I was a terrible student. I was so burnt out, just spending my days reading and going to museums and seeing everything I could. I fell in love with what was happening in dance and performance at the time. Every weekend I was at the Dance Theater Workshop, the Kitchen, PS122. I thought maybe that was what I was supposed to do because I wasn’t happy writing academic, analytic shit, and “writing for off-Broadway” didn’t feel real. My final semester, I took this performance composition class with Carmelita Tropicana, which was crucial, and started making these strange performances on myself or with my friend/roommate Lydia Brawner. I started playing around in blackface, even gave my master’s thesis defense in blackface. I actually started getting gigs here and there at random galleries, group shows. Anyway, I eventually graduated and had to become a desk slave without time to sit around day-dreaming about performance, so I thought: Could I turn all these little blackface pieces into an actual play and in doing so resolve my experiences in academia and also do something about this annoyance I was feeling at being crudely racialized every time I turned a corner creatively? That’s where Neighbors came from. My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.

HA What about time in your work? And there’s always this idea of the Other moving in, some catastrophe because of the Other in each play.

BJJ I actually remember learning how time in the theater works through writing Neighbors. I hadn’t understood temporality as a material medium in drama. I just typed up this script without any real concern for how time’s movement or passage might be perceived. I was fixated on what language was doing and my brain just fast-forwarded through questions of physics and plausibility. I didn’t understand that its “minstrel” moments were different from the “natural” scenes, and that naturalism is predicated on a recognizable relationship to “real time.” That became a real struggle when we had to put it on. Of course, then I stumbled upon the impulse for the next couple of plays, which were explicitly about history as abstractions that keep colliding with a sense of time. I became curious about blackness as a thing in and outside of time, its perseverance.

HA I know you’re a big fan of Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody. The writers of the ’50s and ’60s were trying to reinvent or introduce blackness to the American theater. That’s what I love about Neighbors—it’s not only a reckoning with those guys, but also its own thing. Meanwhile, An Octoroon begins with a black playwright saying who he is, but really it’s a construction like everything else in the play. There are real feelings in these constructions.

BJJ Up until recently, everything I’ve written has been a response to the last thing I wrote. And, with Neighbors, every reviewer felt compelled to confirm for the reader within the first sentence that I was, in fact, black. As if that meant, literally, anything. As if a black playwright was associated with a certain kind of playwriting.

HA Is An Octoroon a response to Neighbors?

BJJ I think so. Or at least a response to a response. Keep in mind that I wrote Neighbors in 2008, and it didn’t get done until Obama was president. People were like, “We’re past this. We don’t need to do this.” In some newspaper someone coined that silly phrase “post-race.” But I guess I feel we’re only ever “past” the things we forget, and the stock types I was dredging up were very recognizable and somehow lodged in living memory. I wanted to talk about how blackness or gender or difference is already coded in the contemporary American theater to produce a very limited range of emotional responses, and how that is the essence—the root—of race as, well, what I call the biggest theater game ever. It’s not possible for the average theatergoer to imagine a black male without the slightest anxiety. Whereas, with a black female, suddenly there’s an emotional opening for intimacy—a best friend.

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Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch in Neighbors, 2010, directed by Niegel Smith. Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of the Public Theater, New York.

HA Your confidante, yes. But how did you insert yourself and your ideas about theater into that original play, the nineteenth-century The Octoroon?

BJJ There’s a funny way black artists are made to believe they’re only capable of writing about themselves, so I was interested in trying to write a play where the authorship—or our ideas of authorship—and its “blackness” is somehow swallowed up or consumed by the play itself. All the work I love is made by artists that build their house and are only the ghost of it.

HA But why adapt Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon?

BJJ I was interested in how authorship surrounds the discourse of that play, historically. An Irish guy wrote a play about American slavery. The rules of who gets to write what always fascinate me. I also walked into that process thinking, This racist guy wrote this racist thing a long time ago. This is going to be easy. But the deeper I went, the more my point of view on Boucicault and how he saw himself as an artist changed. A friend of mine once told me that one of the pleasures of the play was seeing me “fall in love” with him. By the end, I was convinced Boucicault was doing something deeply political in the broadest sense of the term, but battling an essential conservatism and egotism of the theater itself, which refused to hear what he was saying. Our instinct is to read an author’s politics into the work, but the thrust of this play is that theater is a self-contained illusion, a mirror trick. A play has its own politics, but that doesn’t necessary mean the author does or should share them.

HA That’s right, because they’re going to be there anyway.

BJJ And that transformed me. I needed to figure out how to turn off or make audiences deactivate their sense of power over the play, which was structured by the expectations they walk in with about the kind of play a black playwright might write. What I built into that opener is a playwright—or two playwrights—disappearing into the play. You have to move through Branden then Boucicault to get to the thing. The authorship deconstructs itself. Though, interestingly, this character is not the author—not me. Everything he says about himself is a lie, and then he tells you it’s a lie—which becomes important for entering into a world that keeps shifting. The play is like a puzzle box.

HA Was the next play—Appropriate, which is a departure—again a response to what had happened before?

BJJ It was, because there was a review of a certain play around the time of Neighbors that suggested the family drama was some kind of holy grail the American playwright had to tackle in order to prove his mettle—like the pinnacle of American dramatic form—and this play had done it. And then Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly was attacked on Broadway for not being enough about social issues. Immediately my bullshit detector went off because nobody calls A Raisin in the Sun or The Piano Lesson family dramas—they’re plays about the “black experience in America.” So I went and read all those fucking “American family” plays and started thinking about the way whiteness was being encoded. Like, how might I read these plays as being about the “white experience in America”? Of course, I immediately saw how every single one of them was about race anxieties and female sexuality. A Streetcar Named Desire literally starts with a black woman making a dick joke. When Blanche is being raped, Tennessee Williams cuts to a white woman getting her purse snatched by a black woman. He understood the evocative symbolic emotional density of blackness on stage. He used it as material, and that was a revelation for me.

HA Also Moise and the World of Reason.

BJJ All his stuff. Did you ever see that documentary where he’s like, “I’ve always felt most connected to the Negro people.” When I saw that, I was like, “Hello?!” But, anyway, I wanted to write a self-consciously “American family drama.” Also, with Neighbors, the game was to overload a viewer with all these theatrical versions of blackness and ask them to make a choice about what was real and question the theater’s ability to communicate anything approaching a “real” blackness. With Appropriate, I had this impulse to see what would happen if I made blackness present but essentially invisible. But it took me a while because I struggled with naturalism. I didn’t understand or appreciate it. I also was living in Germany then, where—probably in reaction to feeling so out of place language-wise—I started reading a lot of dense American modernist stuff, like Faulkner.

HA He’s very helpful in relaxing you.

BJJ Yeah, the way he used language made me think about reading differently. As a result, the early drafts of Appropriate were super knotty and gnarled with run-on sentences, with backstory atop backstory. It wasn’t working. That stuff wound up living in the stage directions.

HA And I would say in the actors as well, as something you could give them to consider. Gloria was to me, among many things, an explosion of this idea of realism as the American trope in theater. There’s a tragedy in that play, and then all this venal shit starts happening. It’s almost like action, then character study.

BJJ There’s something in there about realism closely observed, then blown open to reveal something about the contrivance it takes to maintain it. Contrivance as true realism or something, which then becomes about racial and gender dynamics in a specific kind of workplace. Identity as contrivance.

HA The boss is a brilliant character because there’s this idea of the post-feminist woman, right? Why does she get to be as hideous as the men? Is she even worse? All the women in this play learn the worst lessons about masculinity and do everything they can to—

BJJ —normalize it. That’s what’s expected of them.

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Charlayne Woodard, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, and Chris Myers in War, 2016, directed by Leleana Blain-Cruz at The Clair Tow Theater. Photo by Erin Baiano. Courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater.

HA In War, there are two sisters who are really one character. It would be interesting to put them into one person. I know that was a hard play for you because you didn’t feel you were confronting the family stuff you had wanted to write about. Did it happen more with Everybody, that idea of family?

BJJ I feel like I got closer to something about it.

HA Had you read the morality play Everyman?

BJJ I read it and read around it.

HA Toni Morrison said for her libretto Margaret Garner, she just read a little, so she could invent.

BJJ When researching something, I tend to read and read until I’m surprised by something—like I’ve made some discovery—and then I can start writing. With Everyman, that place was realizing the play we know was stolen/adapted from a Dutch play, which itself drew on a Buddhist source. It was all about the journey or stories along trade routes—like life, always in the middle of evolving and of being passed along.

HA I loved the usher in the beginning of Everybody telling us the history of the play, like the black playwright in An Octoroon. One of your big projects is tricking out realism.

BJJ The idea of the “trick” and turning it is key. I’m trying to sell you a piece of meat—this old play. It takes so much to get an audience to find it sexy, to get them to enjoy it, because in general we’re so insecure about our grasp on or relationship to the past. There’s something about the original I try to honor, but also something I want to place on top of it, to give it a new vibe.

HA You keep testing the limits of this trick. What does that mean in terms of where you’re going with new work?

BJJ I don’t know. I have this urge to make something novelistic now. For so long I’ve thought of plays as short stories, but I don’t know what it would mean to think novelistically.

HA Would War be a part of that development?

BJJ I think so, or it’s trying to. I thought a lot about Horton Foote while I was writing that and how he kept returning to the same family. Faulkner did the same. Maybe it’s a very Southern thing? But I often wonder: What would black Faulkner look like? What would a black Snopes saga look like? I’m curious about building out some mythic black American family that might hold some larger metaphor. I’m also thinking a lot about black American experiences of the Cold War and military life. I grew up with so many military men in my family. So there’s a part of me that wants to write about them. I have this thing I keep picking at about my father.

HA How does it start off?

BJJ It starts with him getting tipsy in front of me—for the first and only time in my life—and begging me to not write about him until he was dead. I realized that it’s a certain kind of person’s nightmare to have a child who grows up to be a writer who might tell a truth you never want told. But he’s also fascinating. I didn’t grow up with him, so the majority of my thinking about him is speculation. His life is full of so many strange moments of fate. Like when he was a young guy, bumming around without any real direction, he happened to be walking by a dental school, when this guy out front asked, “Hey, you! Wanna be a dentist?” My dad was like, “Uh, sure.” And the guy’s like, “Well, hurry and get inside! Classes are about to start!” And that’s how he became a dentist for thirty-six years. A prison dentist.

HA That’s a monologue right there.

BJJ I know! Though apparently his lifelong dream had been to become a zoologist? He was this big canary breeder for a hot second. He had an alligator in a shed in his backyard for a long time. He still has these exotic ducks, which he obsesses over. Sometimes I think he bonds better with animals than humans. He’s capable of such a profound love for them. He’s also the person who encouraged me to live abroad. He’s why I moved to Berlin.

HA Tell me about Thomas Ostermeier. How did you two connect?

BJJ When I was doing a Fulbright in Berlin, the Schaubühne—which he runs—was my host institution. And that’s where I saw his work, which was very liberating to me somehow. It really impacted the way I thought about adaptation—this faith in the importance of narrative and engaging a text, as opposed to subverting or deconstructing it. The way he doesn’t exactly compartmentalize his politics from his aesthetics is intriguing. I met him eventually through Mark Ravenhill and was very starstruck. He’s kind of an icon—though I had no sense he remembered our encounter. Flash forward: this Broadway producer calls me up, saying that he’s trying to do an English-language version of Thomas’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People and Thomas thought I would be good for it.

We’re still trying to figure it out, because Broadway is its own weird thing, and I’m not just translating the play into English but also troubleshooting the ways it might approach that very specific and very American audience. It’s been amazing, however, to spend this much time in Ibsen. In Europe, he represents something so different than he does here.

HA He’s alive there.

BJJ Alive and talking about class and allegory and nationhood. Whereas here, he’s thought of as all about gender wars and psychology.

HA Will it be funny to sit in a Broadway theater?

BJJ If it even happens! I’m still confused. Being on Broadway is not something I’ve really sought after or even entertained as an ambition. So we’ll see.

Hilton Als writes for the The New Yorker. His most recent book is White Girls (McSweeney’s, 2014).

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Originally published in

BOMB 142, Winter 2018

Featuring interviews with Milford Graves, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Meredith Monk, Jim Hodges, Lucy Dodd, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jlin, Cate Giordano, Don Mee Choi, Christian Hawkey, and Friederike Mayröcker.

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