To Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Slavery Is a Family Story | Playbill

Film & TV Features To Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Slavery Is a Family Story

He's explored the ongoing impact of slavery in his hit plays, now he's doing it for TV in Kindred.

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins in the middle of shooting Kindred for FX Tina Rowden/FX

Recently, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the cast of his new FX show Kindred were asked the following question by a reporter: Would you rather travel to the future or to the past? Jacobs-Jenkins considered it a funny question, because he’s Black, and so is most of the cast in the show. “All the Black people looked at each other and went, the future!” recalls the playwright-turned-TV-showrunner with a laugh. “For a Black person, there's nothing back there I need to relive.”

Time traveling to the past is the concept of the show that Jacobs-Jenkins has created for FX. Kindred, based on the sci-fi novel by Octavia Butler and currently streaming on Hulu, follows a Black woman named Dana, living in modern-day Los Angeles, who is suddenly pulled back in time to a Maryland plantation in the antebellum South. In the process, she meets her ancestors. Published in 1972, Kindred is now a classic of science fiction, and Butler herself is “considered the godmother of Afrofuturism,” says Jacobs-Jenkins.

The playwright calls himself a “superfan” of Butler—and coincidentally, both writers are MacArthur geniuses. He read Kindred “a million times as a kid” and he even had her words pasted onto the cover of his notebook, which says, “Tell stories. Filled with Facts. Make people touch and taste and KNOW. Make people FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!”

His love for Butler’s work is why Jacobs-Jenkins has been trying to create the Kindred television show since 2010. This was before he exploded onto the American theatre scene with his plays Appropriate and An Octoroon, both of which won Obie Awards for Best New American Play and have since been produced around the country.

As Jacobs-Jenkins grew more successful in theatre, he continued to get rejection from studios for Kindred. In 2021, however, FX bought the show. And this past spring, while Jacobs-Jenkins was making his Broadway debut when he provided additional material to the revival of The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, he was also in the middle of filming for Kindred. “I was going back and forth between the set and that show,” he admits.

And though television is a completely different medium from theatre, Jacobs-Jenkins has noticed that many of the skills he’s honed as a playwright—such as how to collaborate and give notes—has been valuable in his first foray as a television showrunner. “Talking to actors is a translatable skill,” he explains. “Being in a production process, being in a design process, those things are essentially the same game, but now you're working on a completely different scale.” He then adds, in his characteristic good-nature delivery, “It's like doing it 10 times as big, but also you're, like, smoking crack, or whatever.”

Even though Butler’s influence can be felt in the modern-day genre films such as Jordan Peele’s horror and sci-fi Get Out and Nope, and the thriller Antebellum starring Janelle Monáe—her work has never been adapted for the screen. Toshi Reagon has adapted Butler’s Parable of the Sower into an opera. But Jacobs-Jenkins’ Kindred will be the first screen adaptation of Butler’s work, even though there have been attempts to turn Kindred into a film since the 70s.

“It's not a movie,” says Jacobs-Jenkins. “The book itself is so much about time and people and relationships, and sort of feeling of being trapped and watching people evolve. And that's what television does well.”

If you’ve read Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays or seen them, it’s easy to see why he’s so fascinated by Kindred. it is clear that before Kindred the TV show, he always had Butler on his brain. His play Appropriate was about a modern Southern white family reckoning with their violent racist legacy (and there are ghosts). His play An Octoroon was a modern send-up of antebellum fantasy tropes, featuring actors dressed in period costume but speaking in a decidedly modern dialect (the world premiere of the play Off-Broadway starred Hadestown’s Amber Gray).

<i>An Octoroon</i> stars Austin Smith and Amber Gray
An Octoroon stars Austin Smith and Amber Gray

Jacobs-Jenkins also has a new play in summer 2023, Off-Broadway at Signature Theatre, called Grass, that also promises to tie in Southern history with the modern day. His work, like Butler’s, addresses the contemporary impact of slavery, on both Black people and white people.

After all, it was common within the institution of slavery for white men to rape Black slaves, and father children that they would then own. As Butler once wrote in her notes while writing her novel: “In this country, whether we like it or not, Blacks and whites are kindred.”

Says Jacobs-Jenkins: “The great secret of American chattel slavery is that it's a family story, everyone's related. This was a time in which everyone was related, and there was this social code that allowed people to own their relatives.”

He explains his fascination with that period, and its impact, this way: “You're touching on biology, you're touching on memory, you're touching on love, you're touching on kinship, you're touching on hatred and evil. All the great themes of literature live inside this system. That's partly why I keep being drawn to it in my own kind of glancing way.”

Despite the marketing for the show calling Kindred a miniseries, it’s actually a multi-season show. Jacobs-Jenkins says that he can see the show going for at least three seasons, though FX has not yet renewed the show for a second season. He is also aware of the criticisms of the show, such as those who are frustrated with the character of Dana for being "inactive."

"Because she lives in a world where who she is gives her no agency," he explains. But because Jacobs-Jenkins has also been a theatre professor, he's aware of the stereotypes he is playing against, saying, "this is why every slave movie or narrative is about someone trying to run away because that is a person regaining their agency. But the life of a slave is literally a life of social death. So yes, it's not interesting to watch someone be a servant. Our instinct is not to identify with that person. We think we're victims, we also think we're heroes." 

This choice, to have a Dana who has to be quiet and strategic with how she navigates the dangers at the plantation, was also inspired by Butler, says Jacobs-Jenkins: "Part of what Octavia was writing about specifically was how people survive: What is it that makes someone persist in their lives, in a situation where they might feel oppressed?"

Micah Stock and Mallori Johnson in Kindred on FX Tina Rowden/FX

In adapting Kindred, Jacobs-Jenkins had to make some tweaks to the material. For one, in the novel, it is never explained why Dana, played onscreen by Mallori Johnson, has time-traveling powers, though the powers themselves have been interpreted as a metaphor for inherited trauma and the ongoing impact of slavery.

For his adaptation, Jacobs-Jenkins is exploring the source of Dana’s powers, which was explained in Butler’s notes, now housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. “Dana did actually have a genealogy, there was a reasoning behind her powers, it wasn’t just a random thing,” he says. In fact, Butler had planned Kindred to be part of her Patternist series of books that span ancient Egypt to the far future, about a line of human beings with superpowers.

Instead of setting the story in the 1970s, the TV show is set in 2016. This is to give this new Kindred immediacy, but it also allows Jacobs-Jenkins to connect how modern white fragility is directly connected to antebellum and Jim Crow. In the show, Dana moves into an all-white affluent neighborhood, and her neighbors immediately complain about noise and call the cops on her.

“Octavia was always interested in critiquing any kind of superiority a person can feel over the past,” says Jacobs-Jenkins. “When you look at historical drama, it's very easy for us to feel like we're not like those people. But actually what she was saying was, ‘No, those people are as flawed as you are.’ And they are living in a system that they didn't understand was morally wrong." 

The hope is for audiences to look at themselves and wonder, "How might you be living in that system, or expressing behaviors that the future might condemn is actually problematic?”

Another reason the show is set in 2016 was because that was the year that Donald Trump was elected president—despite his overtly racist, sexist, and ableist behavior. That event actually helped Jacobs-Jenkins sell Kindred to FX, after years of having networks turn him away due to the post-racial promise of the Obama administration. Perhaps that is why now is the perfect time for Kindred to be presented to a new generation of Americans. In recent years, it’s become more clear how unfortunately timely Butler’s writing continues to be (her Parable of the Sower seems to have predicted the rise of Trumpism).

“2016, in some ways, did feel like a backslide in time. We all slipped back into the past,” says Jacobs-Jenkins. “These last few years … the denial has fallen from some people's eyes when it comes to these stories, and the importance of this history and the persistence of this legacy in our contemporary imagination.”

 
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