Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the DC-born playwright whose Appropriate and An Octoroon astonished audiences at Woolly Mammoth, has won a MacArthur Fellows Award — also know as a “genius grant” — of $625,000.
Both works won Obie Awards for Best New American Plays for Jacobs-Jenkins, 31. His play Gloria was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.
DC Theatre Scene’s Ben Demers called Appropriate a “black-as-pitch” comedy in his November 2013 review of the Woolly production. The story tracks the disintegration of a southern family whose paterfamilias has died after years of dementia. “The play strikingly mirrors the real world, where happy endings are in short supply but hope can always be found among the next generation,” Demers said.
An Octoroon is an ambitious restaging of an 1850s melodrama of the same name against a contemporary backdrop. In Dion Boucicault’s original story, a young white man, the inheritor of his father’s large estate, falls in love with a young woman with the proverbial “drop of [African] blood.”
In Jacobs-Jenkins’ retelling, the white aristocrat is played by an African-American in whiteface (by implication, Jacobs-Jenkins himself), a white actor appears in blackface, and Boucicault himself appears, wearing a cheap Native American headdress.
DCTS reviewer Debbie Minter Jackson, while having reservations about the effort as a whole, observed that “creative artists like Jacobs-Jenkins will keep paving the way fearlessly, as George C. Wolfe did with The Colored Museum thirty years ago.”
In addition to his Obies, Jacobs-Jenkins received the Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting (Emerging Playwright Division) in 2011; the Paula Vogel Award from Vineyard Theatre (given “to an emerging writer of exceptional promise”) the same year; the Steinberg Playwrights Award in 2015; the $150,000 Windham-Campbell Prize for Drama from Yale University and the PEN/Laura Pels Award for Emerging Playwright, both this year.
Jacobs-Jenkins is a 2006 graduate of Princeton University and a 2007 graduate of NYU’s Tisch Scholl of the Arts. He graduated from the Lila Atcheson Wallace Playwrights Program at the Julliard School.
Jacobs-Jenkins is one of 23 individuals who received MacArthur grants this year. “While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope” said MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch. “They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts, and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways. Their creativity, dedication, and impact inspire us all.”