“I hear you breathin’, but your heart no longer sounds strong/
But you’re kinda scared a’dying, so you hold/
And you keep on blackin’ out, and your pulse is low/
Stop tryin’ to fight the Reaper; just relax and let it go/
Because there’s no way you can fight it, though you’ll still try/
And you can try it ‘til you fight it, but you’ll still die/
Your spirits leave your body and mind clears/
The rigor mortis starts to set, no you outta here…”
– Scarface, “I Seen a Man Die”
I’m trying to give Branden Jacobs-Jenkins the benefit of the doubt, I really am.
Given all his credentials, all his acclaim, and the fact that he, like myself, is a Black theatre artist, I swear to God that I am not actively out to hate his work.
Having said that, this is now two years in a row where I’ve walked out of one his shows knowing immediately that it was going on my “Worst of” list at the end of the year – and this one also stars the talented Lance Gardner! Last year, it was Berkeley Rep’s beautiful production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ horrible (and hypocritical) play An Octoroon. Feel free to click that link for my review of that show, but suffice it to say, it’s what happens when a-Black-playwright-who-should-know-better makes something you’d expect from a condescending White hypocrite.
Having proven with that show that he’s horrible at racial commentary, Jacobs-Jenkins now turns his attention to death – our concept of it; the things we do to avoid it; and the pure inevitability of it. Like the earlier show, this one is also based on a classic text and aims to reevaluate it through modern eyes. And, like the earlier show, this one also falls flat on its face, thanks to a mediocre script that condescends to its audience rather than enlightening them.
Death comes for Everybody. No, really: the personification of Death has come for a person named, well, “Everybody”. Really, it was only a matter of time. But Everybody isn’t ready. It turns out that Death, despite being all business, is empathetic: Everybody is allowed to find someone to accompany them on their trip to the Great Beyond.
Thus begins Everybody’s journey to find a travelling companion, a journey that will leave Everybody questioning all the people and things they held dear; a journey has only one inevitable destination.
Based on the two shows I’ve seen, the problem with Jacobs-Jenkins is that he thinks his audience is stupid. Starting with a pretentious intro about the history of the text all the way through the final scene, he talks down to the people who paid good money to see the show. It’s great that he’s well-read and wants to share his knowledge with others, but there are ways to do that which don’t chide the audience for not having consumed the same texts that you have. When Everybody (played in this show by Stacy Ross – more on the casting switch-up below) continues to run into personifications of concepts that refuse to go along on the journey, it quickly goes from the playwright making some admittedly-pointed commentary on our connection to these concepts (the first two lines or so) to a playwright just in love with the sound of his own literary voice. It’s nice that the Somebodys initial reaction to Death resembles Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s long-since-debunked Five Stages of Grief (albeit out of order), but this never goes anywhere. And these scenes are repeated over and over throughout the play, like the world’s most depressing production of Groundhog Day.
Speaking of repeating oneself, I hate to keep doing so. But it’s a bit hard to avoid it when the author makes the same mistakes in multiple projects. Both plays feel like the self-congratulatory thesis papers of an obnoxious know-it-all student who merely skimmed through the text without absorbing its meaning. What’s more, the kid now thinks a single semester of Conceptual Death 101 makes him eligible for a tenured professorship and the university.
Fortunately for us in the audience, this play also shares its predecessor’s greatest strength: the dearth of talent on the page is compensated for on the stage. I don’t envy the task taken on by director Nataki Garrett (shout out to fellow Bay Area Black directors) in trying to add depth to this shallow text, but she and her cast were more than up to the challenge. Though the prose and repetitive scenes make the 90-min. show seem longer, it does give us more time to appreciate Garrett’s staging and the cast’s performances.
This begins with the cast being hidden amongst the audience before the show even begins. (I’m curious as to how that works with a full house?) We’re then eased into the proceedings by God, played by the Bay Area’s own Britney Frazier in the sort of role almoat wasted on someone of her irreplaceable talent. Once God orders Death (Victor Talmadge, whose one-note performance begins to wear) to take Everybody, the Somebodys hidden amongst the audience are outed. Eventually they take part in a cast lottery to determine their roles for the show.
This matinee performance landed Stacy Ross the role of Everybody, which she played with a heartbreaking vulnerability. The loss she feels as she realizes she’s alone on her journey is made all too real by the expressions on Ross’s face. All of the talented members of the ensemble – Sarita Ocón, Lance Gardner, Jomar Tagatac, and Avi Roque – bring a wonderful amount of life and depth (no pun intended) to their roles as the personified concepts Everybody leaves behind. I hate to single anyone out, but I’d be remiss not mention Jenny Nelson, who this show performed as “Stuff”, the personification of material items. Nelson perfectly tread the line between “sincere” and “sarcastic”, making it all her own in the best possible way. All in all, great performances from a strong ensemble.
I wouldn’t say this is my favorite Nina Ball set (don’t make me choose), but it’s no less worthy of her name. The set begins as a series of pillars (see photo above) that are painted to resemble to Orinda Hills horizon in the background. Two eventually get rotated to reveal mirrors, and the CS pillar later comes down to transform into the gateway to next world. That kind of Nina Ball ingenuity makes up for it not being as visually striking as some of her other pieces. Good work.
This being a daytime matinee, Xavier Pierce’s lights didn’t stand out as much as they would have during an evening show – not his fault. Jake Rodiguez’s sounds are subtle, but incredibly effective: the voices of the actors pop around the theatre with such clarity I and many audience members constantly turned our heads to see if cast members were sneaking behind us. Rami Magron has long been one of Bay Area theatre’s best kept secrets: one of our best choreographers and movement coaches. Her work her is yet another feather in her cap. With Janni Younge’s 10-foot-tall skeleton marionettes, Magron’s choreography makes for a musical sequence that is entertaining, if useless to the story.
If you’re reading these reviews chronologically, then you’ll notice that my review before this was that for Anton’s Well’s recent production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. That show was never intended to be a specific treatise on death, but its commentary is impossible to ignore in light of its author’s subsequent suicide. That text comes from a place of painful sincerity and the show is aided by strong talent both on and off stage, making for one of the best shows of the year.
Everybody has more than twice the resources of that show and just as much talent. Unfortunately, this show doesn’t have as strong a text as the Sarah Kane show. The result is an incredibly talented cast, crew, and theatre forced to pump as much life they can into a horribly written script about death. They all bring their A-game to a story that’s beneath them. For a show about leaving behind what you can’t take with you, one wishes Jacobs-Jenkins had done so with this script.
Everybody is scheduled to run until the 5th of August at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.