The world still has very few Pulitzer Prize–nominated plays that allow for queer, Black and brown, and non-binary actors in the title role with no retrofitting on the director’s part. But one of those plays is Everybody (2017), a drama by the award-winning Black queer playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. This past autumn, Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC staged the play—the theatre’s first ever by a Black artist in its nearly fifty-year history.
Everybody is a modern version of Everyman, the medieval morality play which, as Everybody’s character the Usher points out, was derived from an earlier Dutch play with Buddhist roots. It is a universal story of life and death, made even more universal by Everybody’s rotating cast, determined each night by lottery. On stage, mid play, a group of five actors—called “Somebodies”—are sorted into the roles of abstract figures such as Friendship, Stuff, Beauty, and, of course, Everybody. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s cast of Somebodies—Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman, and Elan Zafir—is cis and trans, queer and straight, Black and brown and white.
From the get-go, Everybody is a queer play. Every night, a different arrangement of bodies occupies the roles; over 120 permutations of the cast are possible. As the Usher tells the audience: the idea that these actors are, in their own bodies and identities, each equally suited to all of the many different roles “destabilize[s] your preconceived notions about identity.”
The director of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production, Will Davis, is himself a trans man with a theatrical practice that is intentionally non-hierarchical. While Everybody is inclusive by design, Davis’s approach to casting is always one that invites actors to be participants in shaping his interpretation of the play. Describing how he runs auditions for a classical play, Davis said he asks actors to choose which role they want to read for. “If I see ten humans who are all very different from each other,” said Davis, “and what unifies them is that they all see themselves as, for instance, this dad character, then I’m going to learn so much more about the play from that process than if I were to see the ten people who were all slight variations of each other.”
In his non-hierarchical rehearsal practice, Davis is more curator than commander. He is interested in “allowing the individuals in the room to self-identify,” while his job is “to create a world where that is lifted up.” Because of the mid-play lottery, Davis had to rehearse each of the roles in Everybody with each actor, in as many combinations as he could make time for. This meant all five actors were teaching Davis and each other about the characters throughout rehearsals.
His directing process deliberately makes space for the expertise and experience of the actors to shape the production. He doesn’t believe actors should “disappear inside” their role, but should instead co-exist with their character on the stage. “It feels violent to me,” Davis said, “that you would ask an actor to ‘pass’ as another character”—whether it’s asking a non-binary actor to play a role as cis or enabling an actor to inhabit a physically or intimately violent character under the excuse of method acting.
It never felt to me—a non-binary person watching from the audience—that these abandonments were motivated by prejudice.
On the night I saw Everybody, the transmasculine non-binary Latinx actor Avi Roque pulled the roll of Everybody in the lottery. Friendship greeted Everybody with a brotherly hand-slapping handshake; the characters Cousin and Kinship joyfully welcomed Everybody as their family.
The play’s plot revolves around how Everybody must die, and how Everybody may bring someone with them, if they can find someone who will agree to dying as well. And although all of Everybody’s friends, family, and even worldly possessions forsake them on this journey, it never felt to me—a non-binary person watching from the audience—that these abandonments were motivated by prejudice, but rather by the ordinary fickleness of humans (and inanimate objects).
Towards the end of the play, the character Love demands that Everybody strip down to their underwear and run back and forth in front of the audience, repeating, “I AM ANGRY! AT MY BODY!” “I AM ANGRY! AT ITS CHANGING!” “I DON’T LOVE! CHANGING!” This is supposed to be a humbling moment for Everybody. They have forgotten about Love, even though Love has been sitting in the audience the whole time. In retribution, Love literally says to Everybody: “You could humiliate yourself a little more.” But Roque described the scene as a simultaneously “empowering” one, and it showed. “My body, over the span of the last two years, has gone through a lot of changes,” said Roque. “But these are intentional decisions that I have made for myself to find more love and peace with myself.”
Standing at the foot of the stage, barefoot and in boxer briefs, scars in full view, Roque’s trans Everybody breaks the fourth wall wide open as they race, panting, across the carpet. At the same time as Roque’s personal human experience is visible in their character, they speak to a universal human experience as well. “I HAVE NO CONTROL,” they shout, at Love’s instruction, “THIS BODY IS JUST MEAT,” “I SURRENDER.” The room goes dark; giant skeletons twisted from balloons take to the stage, puppeted by the rest of the cast in a disco-lit danse macabre, and Everybody returns to the stage in a hospital gown. Roque remarked that, even while they have made changes to their body, “I’m also just a human being in this meat suit, going through life with struggles and victories, and eventually I will die, like all of us will.” Without concealing what makes them them, Roque as Everybody connects the audience viscerally to the shared human condition of death.
Freedom in Ambiguity
While Everybody is based on a morality play, it is much less didactic than the source text. Instead, the play proceeds from a place of ambiguity and ineffability, where the universal human experience is the knowledge that death is inevitable, but what death is remains terrifyingly unknown. For the audience, as the Usher says, the lottery “thematize[s] the randomness of death.” For the actors, it meant intense preparation for multiple significant roles, while learning to be okay with the terror of the unknown.
Kelli Simpkins and Alina Collins Maldonado, who played Friendship and Kinship respectively at the performance I saw, both referred to the freedom that comes from the unexpected in this play. “You can prepare in all the ways we have,” Simpkins said—memorizing lines, switching roles in rehearsal, and even running a lottery at the start of rehearsal. “But you cannot be prepared for how it’s all going to shake down each night.” I saw the play during its closing week, and at that point only once had the lottery yielded the exact same results. Every other night was a completely different show. “I am open to whatever comes from this lottery ball from night to night,” said Simpkins. “There’s a freedom in that, which I have never felt as an actor.”
Depending on which actor occupies which role, the timing of cues and the length of the show vary from night to night, in part because Davis encouraged each actor to bring their own interpretations and identities into Jacobs-Jenkins’s characters. Speaking of Davis’ directing, Collins Maldonado said, “He gives you that space and agency over these abstract themes”—asking each of the actors to answer for themselves: What is Friendship? And Kinship? And Beauty?
Collins Maldonado, Roque, and Simpkins all described how they also learned and borrowed from each other in rehearsal and even during the show’s run. Every night when they weren’t on stage, the actors watched a live feed of the show from the green room, where they discovered new intonations and gestures they were excited to try if their turn in those roles came up. However, each actor’s choices within the roles remained informed by their own experiences. Because the characters in the play are all abstract ideas instead of specific people, the room for interpretation was, as Collins Maldonado said, very freeing. “We don’t fit a specific box,” she said. Nor do the actors have to. “I actually have every right to this interpretation, as long as it’s honest.”
Simpkins believes what Jacobs-Jenkins has done is genius, in that every body is perfect for every role.
Remaking the Stage
Jacobs-Jenkins and Davis are both invested in, as Simpkins says, “what the theatre can do as an art form” and in “breaking that form open.” The minimalist staging and fluid fourth wall make the actors even more visible to the audience; before the lottery, Death calls the Somebodies to the stage from where they all sit among the audience. For most of the show, the actors perform in a long white room with a door, filled only with lights in shifting colors. Few props enter the stage except for the lottery basket and symbolic balloons on strings. At the danse macabre, even the walls fall away, revealing the concrete floors and steel scaffolding of the backstage area—the bones of the theatre. There is no room left for illusions.
Between Jacobs-Jenkins’ scripting and Davis’s directing, Simpkins said, the production “destabilizes all of our notions about gender, about race, about identity, about inclusion, about life and death, and who we see” on the stage of a major regional theatre. But, as Davis said, a single play can’t change the world—“nor should that be its job.” Everybody is a momentous production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and for the future of theatre in general, but it is just one moment in a long process of change—slow change, Davis admitted, but inevitable change. “I do think that art-making can change your life,” he said, in ways that exposure to individual productions cannot. “Part of art-making is being an audience. It’s not a show until the audience comes.”
As the director of Everybody and other innovative productions, Davis has had his fair share of encounters with doubtful and displeased audiences, as well as patrons who are not ready to relate to actors who don’t look or sound like they do. But Davis remains optimistic that approaching audiences’ sometimes-hostile reactions with curiosity can, over time, help them see, in this very human form of live theatre, that they’re always looking at humans, and humans are always looking back. Not everyone may have the same backgrounds, but for 120 or so minutes actors and audience are creating a shared experience together.
By working collaboratively with the actors, Davis said, “we slowly make our way toward a production that looks like the people who made it, as opposed to one artist.” And when the people who made it are as diverse as the cast and crew of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Everybody, the end result is stunningly multifaceted. Every night, new angles of the play reveal themselves through the talented movements of the actors.
Simpkins believes what Jacobs-Jenkins has done is genius, in that every body is perfect for every role. “I am a queer-identified, androgynous-identified white person,” she said. “There’s a white, male, cisgender, heterosexual person, and three people of color, and a trans-identified, gender non-binary body on stage. All of those bodies land in all of the parts.” It is, after all, called Everybody, not Everyman.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ vision is one that seeks to represent life as it is. “What this play does so brilliantly,” said Simpkins, “and what I think Davis does so brilliantly, is say just bring you… Be everything that is you, which is so complex, and so perfectly enough.” This is the heart of radical inclusivity, especially, as Simpkins pointed out, in an industry that continues to measure actors against normative standards of beauty, relatability, and more, often as code to enact racist and sexist exclusion on stage. Embracing an ethic of “enough” instead, as Simpkins said, “is a rare gift that we’re giving this audience, and that we’re giving ourselves and each other.”