Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

‘Fulbright is where I was born as a writer’: Tony award-winning playwright playwright reflects on his journey to his Broadway debut

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Award-winning Playwright
Fulbright Study/Research Award to Germany

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins standing in front of window with arms folded
Photo Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is an Obie Award-winning playwright, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and MacArthur Fellow whose seven plays examine complex issues around identity, family, class, and race, often using history to comment on modern culture.

A Fulbright to Germany in 2010 helped launch an accomplished career of writing critically acclaimed plays and teaching theater at the university level. In December 2023, his play Appropriate opened on Broadway, ten years after its original Off-Broadway debut. Met with acclaim from audiences and critics alike, Appropriate moved to a larger theater for an extended run and was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 2024, including “Best Revival of a Play.”

Called an “allegory of national racial dysfunction” by The New Yorker, the play is a subversive appropriation of the great American family drama, telling the story of a white Southern family forced to confront its past after discovering a startling collection of lynching photographs that expose secrets of the deceased patriarch’s life.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins standing with other Tony Award nominees in front of step and repeat
2024 Tony Award nominees for the play Appropriate: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Best Revival of a Play), Sarah Paulson (Best Actress in a Play), Corey Stoll (Best Featured Actor), and Lila Neugebauer (Best Direction of a Play). Photo credit © Tricia Baron

Now a professor in the practice of theater and performance studies at Yale University, Jacobs-Jenkins credits his Fulbright experience as the pivotal moment in his development.

It was during this time that he discovered his writing process, spending countless hours reading the classic American plays at the JFK Institute Library at the Freie Universität Berlin. “Everything I'm doing now,” he says, “is because I was given the time and space to understand myself, explore my interest, expose myself to new ways of making work and new theater cultures.”

Jacobs-Jenkins graduated from Princeton University with a concentration in anthropology and a certificate in theater, earned a masters in performance studies from New York University, and graduated from the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard. He wrote his first play while working as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, where he supported two theater critics, giving him a valuable vantage point to watch and discuss current plays, before receiving his Fulbright award to Germany, which he refers to as a “watershed event” in his life.

Before his departure to Germany, conceptual artist Glenn Ligon advised him, “you’re going to feel the most American you’ve ever felt.” Initially unsure of what Ligon meant, Jacobs-Jenkins soon came to understand. “I was read as an American before I was really read as Black, which was a new experience for me coming from the States,” he observes. This shift in perception, influenced by the historical memory of Black American soldiers in Germany, led him to view his American identity in a new light. He began “to think of myself as American in a way that I never had before.”

During his Fulbright, Jacobs-Jenkins wrote the play War, which examines issues of German “Mischlingskinder” – biracial children born to German women and American soldiers during World War II, who remained in Germany after the war and were often abandoned. He also started writing the plays Appropriate and Octaroon.

As he prepared to leave Germany, Jacobs-Jenkins received the Vineyard Theater’s Paula Vogel award, given annually to an emerging writer of exceptional promise. This led to a year-long residency in New York, where he wrote Gloria, a play that explores the concept of a writer’s identity through the lives of an ambitious group of editorial assistants working at a Manhattan magazine.

His theatrical success accelerated, cementing his reputation as a rising star in the theater world. In 2013, Appropriate opened Off-Broadway at New York’s Signature Theater, and Jacobs-Jenkins was the recipient of the first-ever Sundance Institute Tennessee Williams Award. In 2014, He received the Obie Award for Best New American Play, with the New York Times lauding him “as one of the country’s most original and unsettling dramatists.”

That same year, the Yale Repertory Theatre presented War, and in 2015, the Vineyard Theater premiered Gloria, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2016, he received the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” fellowship, and in 2020, he was selected as a Guggenheim Fellow.

His work has been performed in New York and across the United States, as well as in Germany, Australia, and at the National Theatre in London. In early 2024, producer Orin Wolf announced that Jacobs-Jenkins would write the book (libretto) for a new stage musical adaptation of Prince’s 1984 breakout film, Purple Rain.

Meanwhile, he has continued to teach rising generations of dramatists. Prior to joining the faculty of Yale University, Jacobs-Jenkins taught at New York University and Princeton University, had a residency at Signature Theatre, ran an MFA playwriting program at Hunter College, City University of New York, and taught at The University of Texas at Austin. He encourages all of his students to consider applying for a Fulbright, an experience he wishes every young person could have – “especially artists.”

Speaking from backstage at the Belasco theater during the run of Appropriate, he describes his Broadway debut as “very charmed, almost like a fairy tale experience.” With a record number of first-time nominees for the 2024 Tony Awards, he believes “it's a really good time to be a theater lover. It feels like a bit of a golden age might be approaching, in terms of a generational turnover and new ideas and new talent. And I'm just very honored to be a part of this moment.”

At the 77th Annual Tony Awards held at Lincoln Center on June 16, 2024, Appropriate won in all three categories it was nominated for: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Sarah Paulson), and Best Lighting Design (Jane Cox). Read more about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Appropriate's road to the Tony Awards.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins sitting at table holding book while writing on page
Photo Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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