On writing 'War': Some thoughts from playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The Yale Repertory Theatre commissioned playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins four years ago, and now New Haven audiences are the first to see his new play “War.” Literary manager and production dramaturg Amy Boratko M.F.A. ’06 recently sat down to talk to the playwright about his process writing “War,” which has been supported by Yale’s Binger Center for New Theater. In residencies at Yale, workshops in New York City, and in Yale Rep rehearsals, Jacobs-Jenkins prepared his new work for its world premiere. He has received critical acclaim for his plays “Neighbors,” “An Octoroon,” and “Appropriate”; these last two honored with the 2014 OBIE Award for Best New American Play.
Tickets for “War,” which runs through Dec. 13, are available a online, by phone at 203-432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office, 1120 Chapel St. The play is directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz M.F.A. ’12.
This interview by Boratko is also published in the Playbill for “War.”
What was your initial inspiration for “War”?
Images and ideas come to me in pieces and then suddenly stick together to become something whole. So there were many things that came together to become “War.” I wanted to write a play about black Germans for a very long time — specifically something that dealt with the mischlingkinder (children born to white Germans and African-American soldiers during the American occupation of post-WWII Germany). I’m obsessed with World War II and black American soldiers and relationships between the Cold War and the civil rights movement in our country.
Yale Rep commissioned you in 2010, just before you left for Germany on a Fulbright [Fellowship].
Yes. I received the commission, which was the first major commission of my career, just as I was about to move to Germany for what became two years. I set out to study German dramaturgy — how plays and theatre get made over there versus here. I wanted to expose myself to some new ideas of structure and how people deal with ethnic difference and to do a little research around the mischlingkinder. The fact that Yale Rep commissioned me right before I left was incredible. And, because the theatre is embedded in a research institution, and has resources to support new plays, I felt like I could embark on writing a big play dealing with history and multiple languages. If I was going to tackle these ideas in a play anywhere, Yale was the perfect place to do it.
What characters or images emerged first with “War?”
One of the first images of the play came to me when I came to New Haven to participate in Paula Vogel’s Boot Camp alongside grad students here at Yale School of Drama. You spend several intense days doing writing exercises led by Paula. She charged us with the task of writing an impossible stage direction. What can you not do on stage? You can’t tell apes what to do. I described apes trapped in a glass cage, and they can use some sort of sign language. A fire breaks out in their cage, but the word that they sign for “help” is actually the word for “theatre.” And that’s where I started writing “War” from.
Once you had this initial image, how did you approach writing the play? Is your process similar from play to play, or does it vary depending upon the project?
I don’t know if I have a set way that I approach work. I do know that I have a long incubation process. As with “War,” I’m attracted to a set of mysteries and questions, and I spend a lot of time reading around those mysteries and questions. Generally, out of that, characters arrive. I start thinking about these characters and how they relate to each other. A map forms connecting all these relationships, and suddenly, a play starts to emerge. I’ve been called very “process-oriented.” There are some playwrights who can be done with their plays on the first day of rehearsal, but I’m always trying to create a vivid theatrical experience. I can’t seem to just do that in front of my laptop. Being a playwright, for me, is about being attuned to three different things at different times. Part of me is sitting at a computer, by myself, trying to generate words. Then, I’m sitting in the rehearsal room, responding to what’s happening with the actors and director. Beyond that, I’m also engaged with the designers and having conversations outside of the rehearsal room. I try to square away what I see visually with the story I want to tell.
What does it mean to respond to what’s happening with the actors during the rehearsal process? How are your plays affected by the work actors bring to the process?
I used to be a performer — and even recently performed in the Soho Rep production of my play “An Octoroon” —and sometimes that experience comes into play when I write. I feel the need to be loose sometimes and allow other artists to have the room to make choices. I try to pay close attention to the strengths that each artist brings to a process. I love actors — that each of them brings their own unique instruments. I’m always hungry for the moments when something catches fire in rehearsal.
You’ve known director Lileana Blain-Cruz for well over a decade, but this is the first time she’s directing the world premiere of one of your plays. What is she bringing to the process as you’re exploring in rehearsal?
Lileana and I have a short-hand. We went to college together, and we came up together professionally. Along the way, we’ve exposed each other to things that we both like — and we know each other’s tastes and instincts. It feels like making work with a family member, which is fitting, as I’m trying to explore what it means to write a family drama. It’s also coming home for both of us: Yale Rep is an institution that began to support me early in my career, and Lileana graduated from Yale School of Drama.
Can you talk about this idea of the “family drama” more? You’ve spoken about how you want to investigate what it means to write a black family drama.
Yes. I’ve been curious about what that means. Is it different from a family drama? How? Why? “Black” is such a funny, false adjective in many ways — what does it mean to essentialize it in a family? I’m also interested in what “black drama” is and how we make assumptions about black drama in a solely American context.
Since you began this process inspired by German, how is that affecting how you explore an American concept of black family drama?
Contemporary theatre culture in Germany is a different experience from what we Americans are used to. Stuff over there seems to be generally quite immersive — very long, hyper-designed, not particularly occupied with audiences “recognizing their furniture” on stage. You’re just sort of thrown into another world and another sensibility. The work I really responded to there was about the emotional exhaustion — of yourself, of the actors, of the space, of the stories — to get at something else behind all the furniture and costumes. I’m not trying to ape German practices, but I’m trying to make a patchwork quilt of what I like from their tradition and ours. There’s an American way of viewing, which I love, that is mostly naturalistic and fetishizes time and psychology. I want to take a play like that and put a sort-of one-woman show in the middle of and all around it. I know that I ask the audience to be ready to shift gears several times, but also: why not?