BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS and LILEANA BLAIN-CRUZ
Author and Director of WAR
In conversation with Natasha Sinha, Associate Director/LCT3
Natasha Sinha (Associate Director/LCT3): Branden and Lileana, we’re so excited to have you here at LCT3 for the New York premiere of War! Branden, I could fill a whole page with your recent awards (like the Pulitzer finalist recognition for Gloria). Lileana, you’re coming to us on the heels of two other exciting back-to-back NYC productions (and with multiple more coming up next season). And I love the Branden-and-Lileana origin story—can you talk about when you two met back at college?
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Playwright): We’ve literally known each other since before either of us decided to be what we are now. I was not a playwright when you met me, and you were not a director when I met you. I was writing fiction, and I was “acting” and “directing”… but I wasn’t really trying to be an actor or a director or even a theater professional…
Lileana Blain-Cruz (Director): It was funny, there was this theater on campus doing a one-act play festival, and I auditioned in freshman year even though I had no idea what you were supposed to do in an audition. I just remember Branden sitting there really intensely looking at me saying, “Can you look at this portrait up above us?” Because I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to look at people’s faces! I had no idea what I was doing and I was like who is that. Who is that man who is telling me what to do—
BJJ: “Who is that horrible nightmare person?!”
LBC: – who just knew what to do! But that was my first memory of Branden—and we took a class together.
BJJ: We took Daphne Brooks’ class on African-American theater, which is where my whole mind melted and reconfigured itself in relationship to theater. [Lileana nods in agreement.] I think most of my plays can probably be traced back to that class, actually.
LBC: It’s where I discovered Funnyhouse of the Negro.
BJJ: It’s where I read The Octoroon. Daphne is amazing – an amazing teacher, an amazing scholar – and she really was a godsend to a black student flirting with the idea of working in the theater. It was like I’d been waiting for that class but didn’t know I’d been waiting for that class.
NS: It’s kind of like you two grew up together, artistically. Lileana, when did you turn to directing?
LBC: I was introduced to Ntozake Shange in my senior year. That led to directing a thesis production of for colored girls. And I loved it. And Branden came to see it and he said “This is good!” He was surprised.
BJJ: I was not “surprised!” Look, I’m not going to say this was a thing that necessarily had anything to do with race or otherness– but neither of us were exactly the most celebrated students of that particular class of drama students. We sort of worked on the periphery, and we were dealing with teachers who were based in other departments. So Lileana and I never quite encountered each other because I never did an official university show (I only wanted to do stuff with student groups). Lileana sort of took over the Black Arts Company, which I was kicked out of. Do you remember this?
LBC: I remember this now, but I’d forgotten about it! It happened before I got there.
BJJ: We were both in the Black Arts Company and the only thing they did every year was The Colored Museum—do you remember I was Junie in The Colored Museum?
LBC: Yes, you were amazing in The Colored Museum!
NS: So then why did you get kicked out?
BJJ: Because I was not black enough. True story. It was being run by some insane people at the time.
LBC: Oh my god, that is insane. Well, I came to BAC super late and they were looking for a new artistic director and they were like, “Do you want to run the company?” I had just taken Daphne’s class so I said, “Well, I got all these amazing plays, so let’s do that.”
BJJ: Right, right! That was two years later. And that was when you’d first surfaced in my mind as a theater maker. And you spearheaded the rebirth of that company. Literally. And suddenly they were doing three shows a year. Then you had your thesis. I remember [the theater department] had commissioned a professional playwright to write a play to open up a new theater, and your thesis was scheduled for the same exact weekend, which meant that no one was going to come to your play.
Both: Except they did!
NS: Love it! What was the play? What happened?
BJJ: That was for colored girls. The funny thing is that I was the stage manager on the other show, to fulfill a theater requirement. (It was actually one of [WAR Set Designer] Mimi Lien’s first jobs out of school– that’s how I know Mimi. She’s still constantly bringing up the fact she’s known me since I was 20. Usually to shut me up.) But anyway, I remember I finally got a day off to see Lileana’s show and it was so good and it felt like a profound political moment for our campus because she found this amazing talent pool that had been there on campus, living their lives, doing BAC, but not really being cultivated by the theater department and pretty much unknown by any of the other, at the time, predominantly white theater groups. And I remember certainly faculty members seeing the show and being like, “Who are these people? Where have they been?”
LBC: Right, right. This is true.
NS: So you existed in the same networks during an eventful time, and you knew one another, but did you work together back then?
BJJ: Not really. Unless you count this stupid play I wrote at the end of my senior year -
LBC: No, he wrote this amazing play for his thesis: HEART!!!, with three exclamation points!
BJJ: It was so bad… It was my first full-length anything. I had no idea what was happening.
LBC: It was great. And I was the sound engineer for it and I had to make sure the heartbeat came in at the exact moment and I was so paranoid because it would be like this resounding beat and if I pressed the button at the wrong time I knew I would destroy everything…
BJJ: So that was literally the first time we ever worked together. On my dumb thesis.
LBC: When I pushed the heart button.
BJJ: But I think this means Lileana and I have actually seen every single thing that we have each done.
NS: In seeing Branden’s work grow since then, what has changed or not changed, Lileana?
LBC: Branden has always been a leader. He was doing literally everything at college. And then I remember going to see Neighbors, and I was like “Oh. My. God.” Because HEART!!!—this thesis he downplays—was full of heart, and it was also about these big ideas, like family. And Neighbors was also full of ideas and provocations, and that’s always what I’ve always admired about Branden. He has a huge intellect and a huge sense for the theatrical—a huge appreciation for performance and how that can resonate throughout a space. I think as time has gone by, he’s just become more and more sophisticated in how things are layered and how that theatricality plays and who his audience is. He’s so conscious and aware of that in relationship to history and it’s been great to watch that develop and deepen. These big themes about history and family and performance and where we are in the present just continue to grow, which is really exciting.
NS: Yes, you both wrestle with big American issues in your work—one of which is race. And we’ve talked about how for artists of color, the conversation often starts with race, which can oddly feel restrictive when it’s not necessarily the foremost element. As you’ve both gained more recognition, has that changed at all?
BJJ: Well, even though I wrote a play in which the character comes out and says “Please don’t call me a black playwright and accuse me of writing only about race all the time,” it's still the first thing anyone will use to describe my work—no matter how much I try to destabilize it as a concept.
LBC: It’s interesting, I feel like there’s been a shift. The topic of race is something thematically that appears throughout your work. I think it’s this question of how it lives throughout the contours of American history. The history that you’re talking about is specifically American, and I think that’s really important because it’s inclusive of an entire community. And that’s what An Octoroon does in a really amazing way. It’s about all of these people intersecting. And you do that in Appropriate, you do that in Gloria; it’s expansive and it’s about this country, this time. It’s not just about one community. And for myself, I’m attracted to big complicated texts that have big ideas and are challenging, and that was true of Red Speedo and Revolt. I feel lucky to be directing such a wide range of work.
Check back soon for Part 2 of LCT3-D with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Lileana Blain-Cruz.