Imagine being hit, rapid-fire, by every existential and sociological question you’ve ever considered. You hear more than you can process, and you’re left ruminating long after the questions stop. That’s the experience of watching the selected scenes from this year’s Windham-Campbell drama prizewinners, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Hannah Moscovitch and Abbie Spallen.
The selected scene from “An Octoroon” features Jacobs-Jenkins’ alter ego, BJJ (Austin Smith), and his reflections on race in America. Uncomfortable with the label “black playwright,” BJJ is perplexed by his and others’ approaches to racial dynamics. The scene’s focus is then handed over to 19th-century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault (Haynes Thigpen), whose play “The Octoroon” has been perceived as both racist and abolitionist. Boucicault, almost a comic relief if not for his cringeworthy comment on how 21st-century playwrights “actually use Negroes in your plays now,” laments his postmortem loss of fame.
The visual switch from BJJ to Boucicault, featuring synchronized hand gestures and a “fuck you” battle (after which BJJ runs off the stage), brings the play to life. This humorous interaction elicits laughter from the audience, almost to the point where it’s possible to ignore the complex racial underpinnings of the work.
Moscovitch’s “Little One” also stands out structurally. Two siblings, borderline psychopathic Claire (Ismenia Mendes) and her brother, Aaron (Dan Abeles), recall and relive their shared childhood memories. Their contrasting psyches reveal the complicated relationship between reality and perception: Claire appears malicious, but her interior strives to understand love and relationships, while the apparently sympathetic Aaron nearly demonizes his sister. Moscovitch’s choice to intersperse action and reflection is a beautiful one, merging two time periods and modes of communication. As a result, the scene comes to life through the dimensions of the internal mind and external environment, creating no need for extraneous visual effects. Darker layers eventually emerge when Claire stabs her brother to show she loves him, both horrifying and intriguing the audience.
On the other hand, Spallen’s scene from “Lally the Scut” depends almost entirely on the actors’ voices. In the political satire, 25-year-old Lally (Helen Cespedes) must rescue her son, who is trapped in a well. The featured scene shows Lally’s interaction with Geri Sue (Angela Pierce) and Fork the Cat (Billy Carter), two townspeople who delay the digging process. The dialogue focuses heavily on Geri Sue, who fails to find the words to concisely describe her political vision, and vaguely refers to a “new dawn.”
But it’s the scene’s political satire, emphasized by Geri Sue’s ramblings and long pauses, that draws the audience into the play. This satire, clearly intentional, is also an excuse to ignore Lally’s lurking helplessness. It makes the uncomfortable and heavy a little less…uncomfortable and heavy.
In his second play, “War,” Jacobs-Jenkins relies on tense dialogue to establish an anguished tone. The scene opens after Roberta’s stroke. Her son, Tate (Austin Smith), is confronted by two strangers, Elfriede and Tobias (Austin Durant), who announce that — due to an affair between Roberta’s black father and a German woman during World War II — they are in fact family members. The scene features a fraught conversation between Tate and Tobias, who feels cursed because of his race.
From the start, the scene’s heavy mood is clear, building up to Tobias crying out that “God laughs at me.” The subsequent silence lingers, and I felt the emotional weight of familial and racial tensions crashing down. I wanted the silence to last forever, to process this sensation, but the narrator’s abrupt “End scene!” and the audience’s enthusiastic clapping broke the stillness. Jacobs-Jenkins expertly exposes his play’s emotional underpinning with silence — even in “An Octoroon,” he adds an uncomfortable pause after BJJ’s climactic cry for help.
Ultimately, each play illustrates the gravity of modern existential and sociological issues. “Octoroon” and “War” do not hesitate to venture into the uncomfortable territory of racial discussion. “Little One” explores the power of a witty thriller as a new perspective on mental illness and familial relationships. And even “Lally the Scut” eventually gets beneath its surface of comedy: When Lally, Fork the Cat and Geri Sue physically move together at the end of the scene, the themes of solidarity and helplessness become explicit.
When the reading ended, a woman sitting in the middle row asked when the plays would be toured in her hometown, LA. Like her, I am left wanting more. I don’t need an elaborate set or intricate lighting system. I just want to hear the words again.