Each of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays starts out looking like an experiment with a totally different form and style from the history of American theater: sleek, ironic black comedy (Gloria), classic nineteenth-century melodrama (An Octoroon); a family saga a la Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts (Appropriate); blackface and early minstrel shows (Neighbors). But each of them, alongside that confident formal inventiveness, is using the tools of theater to investigate and work through the same constellation of ideas: about the meaning and value of theater and communal storytelling in a media age, and about the nature of identity—both in the way our storytellers build fictional characters, and in the way we experience and understand our own humanity.
So a modern spin on Everyman, an anonymous fifteenth-century morality play, written in Middle English, that’s a foundational text of the English-language theater (which in turn may be based on a roughly contemporary Dutch play that itself possibly drew on Buddhist fables, according to Everybody), which takes Everyman on an allegorical journey to the afterlife, where God will tally the good and evil deeds of his life and try to take the measure of a man and Mankind, seems like an intriguing fit for Jacobs-Jenkins’s predilections—and it is. Everybody is ambitious and overstuffed, bristling with both ideas and narrative experiments. It’s a whirlwind that swirls the elements of a modern life into moral and philosophical questions that have been asked over and over again across centuries, about: the meaning of life, the history of human thought about the afterlife, the transience of human relationships, the divinity of love, the divinity of divinity, the bureaucratic ordinariness of death, the terror of death…and more. It’s messy and multilayered and constantly surprising—which makes it an enormously exciting ninety minutes in the theater even, or perhaps especially, when the shifting layers bounce awkwardly off each other.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’s hands, Everybody retains Everyman’s core morality play, but with the details loosely translated to contemporary America, with its obsessive use of social media and its identity politics, and with a self-reflexive, explicitly theatrical approach. It’s set in the theatre itself (in director Lila Neugebauer’s immersive staging, most of the action is in the audience and the aisles, with the one onstage playing area for most of the show being in a row of chairs that match the audience seating). The proceedings are presided over by an usher (Jocelyn Bioh, dressed in the uniform of Signature Theater Center’s actual ushers, kicking the play off with a curtain speech that pushes cheerful empathy so far it almost tips past passive-aggressiveness into downright aggressiveness) who is also God (and later the personification of Understanding). Most of the cast enters with and sits among the audience, until summoned, at God’s behest, by Death (Marylouise Burke, in her own “uniform” that resembles a typical Off-Broadway subscription-audience theatregoer: late middle age, striped cardigan, sensible slacks—Gabriel Berry’s costumes are delightfully on-point throughout—serving as a sort of harried and put-upon administrative assistant to God while still channeling the terrifying majesty of mortality). Bioh and Burke set a tone that’s a little arch, a little genuinely scary, a lot unpredictable, and all three of those currents run through the piece.
And after Death’s summoning of five Somebodies from the audience (Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May) the usher reappears—bringing in any late-arriving audience—to conduct one very critical piece of business. She tells us, “In this play, it is required that the actor’s roles be decided by lottery every night in an attempt to more closely thematize the randomness of death while also destabilizing pre-conceived notions about identity, blah blah blah.” The actors draw from a Bingo tumbler to receive their roles: Everybody him- or herself (David Patrick Kelly, at the performance I saw), Friendship (Lakisha Michelle May), Kinship (Michael Braun), Cousinship (Brooke Bloom), and Stuff (Louis Cancelmi).
David Patrick Kelly, a sixty-six-year-old white man with a majestic head of white hair, is the most traditional among this group to be cast as an everyman grappling with explicitly Christian salvation. This adds poignancy to his struggle to persuade someone to join him on the journey to the afterlife, as he tries to negotiate with allegorical personifications who are younger and more vibrant than he, with more of their life to give up—but I think each different combination would bring different resonances to each scene and especially to the ultimate acceptance of and surrender to the painful, undignified journey into the grave. And the very fact that this particular combination of actors and roles may never have happened before (there are in theory 120 different permutations of cast), adds immediacy and unpredictability to the whole. It’s a testament to Neugebauer and this core of five actors that the emotional journey in this central section works as well as it does given the risks inherent to the conceit.
There’s a third level, in addition to the medieval morality play and the explicitly presentational, Brechtian theater environment: a meta-commentary told with just voices in blackness in which all of the action is refigured as a dark dream of impending death, which a dying person narrates to his friends, a discussion that degenerates into a semantic squabble. That level felt a little bit like an obligatory nod to the fact that much of the audience may not subscribe to the source’s religious underpinnings—to give nonbelievers a way into the piece, by calling its central journey just the dream of a dying man. Still, the ideas discussed in the darkness are valuable, too: the “thought policing” of dream content; the way racial/identity politics color discussions of the nature of identity in the modern world.
But I found the translation of the allegorical figures of a morality play into modern lingo much more interesting. Friendship is perfectly sincere and perfectly abstract at the same time (“How is your one family member that I always ask you about? Hey, remember that inside joke?”), and Lakisha Michelle May mixes delight and just a tinge of “cooler-than-thou.” Cousinship and Kinship are hokey in that perfectly judgmental-posing-as-not-judgmental way of one’s most exhausting relatives. Stuff—a deliciously smarmy Louis Cancelmi in a gold leather jacket—is a corrupting influence spouting his own self-help jargon.
Jacobs-Jenkins’s work is consistently original, weird, and thought-provoking, and it’s a pleasure to see a play where you genuinely don’t know, not only what’s going to happen next, but where the action is going to occur. It’s almost a site-specific theater piece, set in the specific site of the theater itself, but constantly nibbling away at the boundaries of the relationship between play and audience. Yes, sometimes the philosophy gets top-heavy; yes, sometimes it gets carried away with its own cleverness and takes a detour into hokeyness. But anything that (mostly) successfully mixes genuine theatrical surprise—scenic, narrative, conceptual, not to mention a puppetry sequence that’s part Danse Macabre, part rave—with sincere spiritual inquiry, can get away with a few terrible puns and still be exciting to watch.