Theater is Scary. So is Death in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Everybody”

REVIEW | This the first Austin production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ work since the MacArthur Foundation fellow joined the UT playwriting faculty this year


Theater is scary. I don’t just mean scary for the audience, scary because certain plots or difficult topics might make us feel afraid or uncomfortable. I mean for the performers. As anyone who’s ever performed knows, getting up in front of a group of strangers and saying things can be absolutely terrifying. And for experienced professionals too.

So what about acting in a play in which you don’t know what part you’re going to play until you get onstage?

This is what “Everybody,” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, asks of some of its actors. Staged at the SAC Blackbox at the University of Texas, and produced by student collective the New Materialists and the PPP Student Alliance, this the first Austin production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ work since the MacArthur Foundation fellow joined the UT playwriting faculty this year.

Early in the play, the roles to be told of five of the ten actors are decided by a lottery; We learn of which allegorical figure (Friendship, Kinship or Stuff, for example) the five actors will play when the actors do. We’re told they have memorized the entire script, that what will follow is one of 120 possible combinations and that this version of the play has most likely never happened before.

This isn’t gratuitous spectacle. “Everybody,” is Jacobs-Jenkins’ adaptation of the 15th century morality play, “Everyman,” and follows an archetypal person as they wrestle with Death who has recently called upon them to, well, die. The lottery, we are told by an overly helpful Usher, is meant to more closely thematize the randomness of death. Just as we don’t know when Death will come knocking on our door, neither do the actors. Throughout the course of the play, Everybody, not yet ready to face God and account for the way he/she/they — depending on which actor gets the role — has lived, tries to find someone to keep them company on their post-life journey.

The lottery isn’t the only way in which the form of Jacobs-Jenkins’ script mirrors its content. Just like our life journey, the journey of this play demands much of its actors. And not only because each must learn multiple roles. They have to dance and lip-synch long monologues. They have to run around the theater space while screaming about their vulnerability and lack of control. Some actors have to take off their clothes.

And all the actors have to be funny. Although “Everybody” is adapted from a Medieval morality play about death, the characters speak with a late-2010s diction, infused with irony, irreverence, affected effortlessness and devastating over-politeness.

It’s as if Jacobs-Jenkins’ script — which netted the playwright his second Pulitzer nomination — deliberately sets its actors up for failure. And this is what makes “Everybody” so completely engrossing and moving. Just as, in life, we are faced with the near impossible prospect of reaching perfection, and, most of the time, fall short; so, too, in this play, the actors are given real, near-impossible tasks to complete in front of us, risking public ridicule, courageously putting their bodies on the line.

My play-life comparison breaks down, however, when I recall the utter virtuosity with which the cast, made up of mostly student actors, takes this on. Not just the five “Somebodies” who submit the lottery each night. The entire cast is energetic, honest, and hilarious: Jayla Ball, Kyle Cordova, Hugo Jaramillo, Jeffrey Gan, Gwenny Govea, Emily Green, Tess Jackson, Javi Rodriguez, Tori Schulze and Rachel Aston Warren.

Still, it struck me watching this production — one of 120 possible iterations of it, that is — that the structural impossibility of perfectly performing this play is an argument for the continued relevance of theater in the age of Netflix. Imperfection is part of the live medium; it’s beautiful and thrilling.

Watching “Everybody” is an unquestionably active experience for the audience. The boundaries between what’s on and off stage dissolve in more ways than one, and more than once.

There is much to admire in this visually exciting, richly and thoughtfully executed production including Khristián Méndez Aguirre’s dynamic direction.

Delena Bradley’s set is marvelously weird and specific. Lining the sides of the faux grass-covered ramp that serves as the stage are miscellaneous objects, the junk of everyday life: stacks of old computers, moving crates, Converse shoes, a phone, a rake, a shovel, and (my personal favorite) an Amazon package. All of this contemporary stuff provides a darkly humorous frame for this morality tale.

The set also blends seamlessly with the costume, lighting, media and sound design. The New Materialists are, according to the own description,  “a one-year experiment in design-driven collaboration between four graduate students at UT Austin.” Trippy soundscapes, immersive lights and media, and found costumes all work perfectly to render the tonal shifts between the laughter and the horror of the play.

“Everybody” is recommended. Life is short.

“Everybody” continues through Nov. 2. Tickets are free.

Daniel Tejera
Daniel Tejera
Daniel Tejera is a writer and actor from Madrid. He received an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin.

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