Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins returns with ‘Gloria’

Jun 11, 2015, 8:06 AM
This June 3, 2015 photo shows Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright of new play “Gloria” o...
This June 3, 2015 photo shows Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright of new play "Gloria" onstage in his work-place drama's set at the Vineyard Theatre in New York. The play is about a group of catty editorial assistants at a Manhattan magazine whose lives change completely one random day. (AP Photo/Mark Kennedy)
(AP Photo/Mark Kennedy)

NEW YORK (AP) — The great playwright Arthur Miller rarely changed a word of his plays during rehearsals. The equally great Tennessee Williams rewrote furiously until he had to stop.

Which model does rising playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins identify with? Let’s just say that, in this case, he’s more like Williams than Miller.

“I’m happiest when I’m in a room full of people, and we’re all figuring this messy draft out together,” he said recently as he made last-minute changes to his latest work, “Gloria.”

The play, opening Monday at the Vineyard Theatre, is about a group of catty editorial assistants at a Manhattan magazine whose lives change completely one random day.

Jacobs-Jenkins mined his own experiences working in a cubicle at the New Yorker to weave the poignant three-scene story of how we remember and exploit our pasts.

“I was interested in a group of writers fighting over an experience,” he said. “The form found its way for me in this one.”

At just 30, Jacobs-Jenkins has made a name for himself as an inventive, fresh theater writer. Last year, two of his works tied for Obie Awards for Best American Play.

In his “Neighbors,” a family of minstrels in blackface moves in next to a contemporary mixed-race family. In “Appropriate,” a white family discovers its racist past.

His play “War” dealt with a broken family brought together at a deathbed, and his “An Octoroon” is a loose adaptation of a play written more than 150 years ago that deals with identity and race.

“Things just kind of stick with me and writing for me is always an investigation into my own feelings about them,” he said. “I wonder why things stick to me, and I try to synthesize those into a dramatic experience in some ways.”

“Gloria” director Evan Cabnet describes Jacobs-Jenkins as a playwright always willing to go deeper. “He’s so thoughtful and so unrelenting in whatever the question is that he’s wrestling with or the thing that he has on his mind,” he said.

The Princeton-educated Jacobs-Jenkins was living a double life when he was forced to pick his future. He had risen through the ranks of the New Yorker from assistant to fiction associate and had been writing plays at night.

When The Public Theater offered to produce his “Neighbors,” he gave up his steady paycheck. The day after his play closed, Jacobs-Jenkins flew to Berlin as a Fulbright scholar.

He was lured back with the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award from the Vineyard Theatre. He became a Juilliard School fellow and slept on an air mattress in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

A first draft of “Gloria” was written years ago but was put aside after a bout of writer’s block. It had emerged as a memory from his days in a cubicle and characters soon emerged.

“It’s mysterious. No one knows what we do. No one knows how this works,” he said. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you this is how I normally write. I’m still figuring that out in some ways.”

Jacobs-Jenkins likes the yeasty results of collaborating with performers and directors. He said he sometimes likes to rewrite dialogue so it feels more real in an actor’s mouth.

During work on “Gloria,” he and Cabnet were wrestling with how to start Act 2, a scene set in a Starbucks. What was on the page somehow didn’t allow the audience in.

“One day, really out of nowhere, without any of us expecting this to be on our work list, Branden showed up with this amazing monologue,” Cabnet said. “And a highlight of the evening was born.”

These days, Jacobs-Jenkins has traded in his air mattress for an Ikea bed in the trendy Park Slope neighborhood. He teaches at New York University and lectures at Yale. And he’s itching to write something new.

“I’m freaked out I haven’t written a new, new play in like maybe a year or so. I’m curious if all this experience has made me a better writer. I don’t know yet. Maybe it’s made me a worse writer,” he said, laughing.

___

Online: http://www.vineyardtheatre.org

___

This story has been corrected to show that the first name of Jacobs-Jenkins is Branden, not Brandon, in the third-to-last paragraph.

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Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins returns with ‘Gloria’