(Julian Lucas’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 1/9; Jacobs-Jenkins, whose drama “Appropriate” is now on Broadway, has a gift for matching ugly feelings with sophisticated forms.Photograph by Maciek Jasik for The New Yorker.)

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has been celebrated for his masterly appropriation of theatrical conventions—and for his eagerness to explode them.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has endured his share of mortifying moments in his journey to the American stage. There was the night in his early twenties when he met Tony Kushner at a birthday party and stood for so long in awestruck silence, pretending to text, that Kushner pityingly encouraged him to have a good time. Or the day he misspelled “heifer” in a spelling bee, earning so much mockery from friends of his mother’s, he told me, that “I almost had my race card taken away.” Two of his first plays stumbled into scandals before they even opened, with one of them leaked to and subsequently eviscerated in the Times. But the cake-taking incident occurred during a brief flirtation with performance art, when Jacobs-Jenkins appeared before his family in blackface.

“My mom was there,” he told me recently. “My kindergarten teacher was there. My brother and sister were there.” He closed his eyes and laughed into his steepled hands. The happening was part of an experimental-art festival in his home town of Washington, D.C., and took place in a former bathroom at a shuttered school. His mother had caught word of it online, and by the time he recognized her voice among the dozen or so spectators it was too late to stop the show. Jacobs-Jenkins spent the next half hour performing mimelike routines face-to-face with each member of the audience, lip-synching as machines spewed fog and a sample from Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” played on a loop: “Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh-no-no.”

He remembers it as one of the moments that led him to choose playwriting over performance. Having recently graduated from a master’s program at N.Y.U., Jacobs-Jenkins was attempting to excavate the legacy of stigma attached to Blackness onstage. He saw himself in the lineage of artists who explored the afterlife of racist imagery, and of avant-garde performers who dissected the construction of identity by defamiliarizing their own. Yet his brother laughed. His former teacher looked terrified. His mother never spoke of the day again. Only the principal of his Afrocentric elementary school—where he’d once appeared in a Black-history pageant as Martin Luther King, Jr.—managed to find words for the occasion. “First, I want to say we are so proud of you,” she told Jacobs-Jenkins. Then she asked a question: “When will we see you on Broadway?”

The answer has finally arrived, with the recent opening of “Appropriate,” at Second Stage’s Hayes Theatre, on Forty-fourth Street. Directed by Lila Neugebauer, and marking the Broadway return of Sarah Paulson, it’s a raucous family drama set at a former plantation in Arkansas, where the Lafayette siblings have gathered to divide their late father’s estate. They find an album of lynching photos while cleaning out the house, and what follows is a feverish reckoning with sin, secrecy, and the dubious dream of suppressing an inappropriate past while continuing to appropriate its spoils. “You want me to go back in time and spank my great-great-grandparents?” one sibling says, raging against white guilt. “Or should I lynch myself?”

At a dress rehearsal, I watched from the mezzanine as Corey Stoll, in the role of Bo Lafayette, snarled these lines at Elle Fanning, who plays his brother’s conscientious vegan fiancée, River. They faced off across an eloquently cluttered living room where a pressure cooker winked from the edge of the stage like Chekhov’s gun. Scenes flew by in a whirl of abject dysfunction. Some family members are anxious to destroy the album, others to sell it as a collector’s item, and still others to concoct an excuse for its damning presence in the home. A surly teen grandchild might even be masturbating to the ghastly heirloom—or at least so it seems to his uncle, a reformed alcoholic pedophile determined to make amends. Presiding over the circus is Paulson in the role of Toni Lafayette, an embattled and embittered matriarch committed to defending her father’s good name. “Enjoy forgiving each other,” she seethed at her siblings in one mike-drop exit. “I hope you forgive each other all night long!”

I caught up with Jacobs-Jenkins afterward in the lobby, where he fielded compliments from members of the audience. “This could be my family,” an older white man volunteered, adding that his grandfather had been a “racist piece of shit.” “Oh, cool! ” Jacobs-Jenkins replied. A woman in red said that she was still processing the show. “You are?” he responded. “I like that. It makes me feel good.” Jacobs-Jenkins is a soft-featured man with watchful eyes, restless fingers, and a chinstrap beard that would flatter a top hat. (That night, he wore a black beanie.) He speaks at lightning speed in a densely allusive dialect of High Millennial, chasing its customary hyperbole—“incredible,” “hilarious,” “obsessed,” “psychotic”—with drafts of irony and singsong warmth. You can never quite tell whether he’s making fun of himself or other people, bless their hearts. “Man, I’m finally a tourist trap,” he mused as a few stragglers filed out. “I was passing people going to ‘Spamalot,’ and I was, like, ‘Oh, this is different! ’ ”

The production is perhaps more of a belated achievement for Broadway than it is for Jacobs-Jenkins. At thirty-nine, the playwright can boast of two Pulitzer nominations, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a cultural presence that extends from Hollywood writers’ rooms to college syllabi. Not long ago, he created an FX miniseries based on Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” and also joined the Theatre and Performance Studies program at Yale. Why should he be bowled over to have reached, in his words, “a little postage stamp of the country owned by three landlords,” where, before becoming a Tony voter, he rarely attended shows because he couldn’t afford tickets? “I see all these sweet little notes from people that are, like, ‘Finally, Branden’s on Broadway!’ ” he told me on another occasion, insisting that, despite a “strange pressure to be so excited,” he felt no particular thrill. Nevertheless, he admitted that it was fascinating to see “Appropriate”—which he wrote more than ten years ago, as a wry homage to the white family drama—realized so grandly on the Great White Way: “In some ways I’m, like, What am I about to reëncounter?”

Jacobs-Jenkins has made an art of dramatizing the Chinese finger trap that is “writing about race.” (Say you aren’t doing it and the snare only tightens.) In his breakout work, “An Octoroon” (2014), a frustrated Black playwright revives an antebellum melodrama as a riposte to the expectation that his work report on contemporary race relations. Race, as Jacobs-Jenkins has memorably put it, is “the biggest, longest-running theater game in the history of mankind.” But it’s also just a subcategory of his deeper engagement with shame, and the ways it forces people to confront the selves and the stories that others foist upon them like dunce caps. He has described theatre as a space for ugly feelings, and in his plays ugly feelings find sophisticated forms. “I think of Branden as a David in search of his Goliaths,” the director Eric Ting told me. “Each play is about finding a new Goliath.”

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