Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Prince of a Lost World
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On Monday, a crowd of theatremakers, artists, and pals packed into the Chocolate Manufacturing facility, an experimental efficiency venue in Lengthy Island Metropolis, to memorialize the actor Mikéah Ernest Jennings. The dazzling forty-three-year-old died instantly final yr, a surprising loss each to his family members and to the theatre at massive. His face was all over the place within the room, in each footage and movies—a queer Black Adonis, his hair as excessive as a peacock’s fan, septum piercing flashing, eyes large and delighted or slumberous and coy. The actor Heather Litteer, a colleague from Big Art Group, pulled on a pair of Jennings’s fingerless leather-based gloves as she learn a eulogy for her “Meeks”; the cellist Melody Giron, weeping, wore a pair of his sun shades to play a chunk by Bach. Jennings was a robust actor, significantly in hybrid kinds—dance theatre, for instance, and the type of live-camera stage efficiency pioneered by Huge Artwork—and he additionally clearly had a present for binding folks shut.
For an extended, great whereas, Jennings was a New York fixture. Glamorous and dancerly, he was an acknowledged magnificence—at his memorial, three totally different audio system talked about the splendor of his calves alone. He all the time dressed to stun: a linen shorts-coverall with no shirt to go to the dump; scarves worn with Isadora Duncan panache; finally, blouses with deep V-necklines to indicate off his cardiac-surgery scar. It was his mixture of technical precision and puckish sprezzatura, although, that made him so essential to troublesome work onstage. Complicated textual content was like water to him. He might make seventeenth-century English political principle sound casually trendy (Caryl Churchill’s “Gentle Shining in Buckinghamshire”); he might rattle off sci-fi nonsense in a Ludlamesque “intergalactic homosexual extravaganza” (“I Promised Myself to Reside Sooner,” with Pig Iron Theatre Firm); he might holler an aria towards the N-word (Marcus Gardley’s “The Field”) proper into your deep reminiscence. A 2016 Signature Theatre manufacturing of three expressionist performs showcased his extraordinary capability: in María Irene Fornés’s “Drowning,” he performed a potato-shaped alien naïf, who falls in love with an image within the newspaper; in Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” he dragged himself throughout the stage as an excruciated Jesus. I can consider no different actor who might span that individual octave in a single night.
April Matthis, who starred in “Funnyhouse,” talked to me in regards to the pleasure she felt at taking part in reverse one other of the few Black actors who had made their (generally lonely) method by means of New York’s “left-of-center” scene. She had first seen Jennings in 2009, in Younger Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,” during which he was a buoyant, upward-flying comedian spirit, and she or he had assumed that, sooner or later, they might evaluate notes. That “Cargo” efficiency, which you’ll watch online, is one other killer. Within the very first scene, Jennings and Prentice Onayemi execute a wierd dance choreographed by Faye Driscoll, biking by means of strikes that appear to be borrowed from minstrelsy and trendy dance, all finished with hysterical, puppet-betrayed-by-its-strings rhythm. The present, devised with the all-Black firm, was a rare object, frank and blistering—and even in a staggering solid Jennings was the standout. Dito Van Reigersberg, whose evil house bishop in “I Promised Myself” fell mitre-over-high-heels for Jennings, first clocked him in “The Cargo,” too; he remembers considering, Oh, that man has that factor the place, when he’s onstage, you may’t take a look at anybody however him.
He was proper. That very same yr, I wrote about Jennings because the “scene stealer of the week” for Time Out New York. I had simply seen him in Huge Artwork Group’s “SOS”, a rapid-fire, flash-download, sensory overload of a whole Web’s value of “discourse,” channelled by means of a vamped-up ensemble taking part in their very own avatars on large video screens. The solid members have been generally plushy forest animals, and became a bunch of drag queens within the “Realness Liberation Entrance,” partying on the apocalypse. On the finish, Jennings and Litteer and the remainder thrashed round whereas cocooned in flexible balloons, swishing like demented automobile washes or Nick Cave sculptures gone feral. You would possibly assume that it might be unimaginable to “steal a scene” in such chaos, however Jennings might and did. (And you may see him do it here.)
These items was his specialty. The director Jay Scheib’s firm additionally used stay video feeds and onstage screens, and Jennings starred in a number of of Scheib’s groundbreaking productions, together with taking part in the title position in “Platonov, or the Disinherited,” from 2014, which was live-edited because it was carried out on the Kitchen, and broadcast at two New York film theatres. Jennings’s heat is the apparent clarification for the way magnetic he could possibly be in such technology-filtered reveals, however, I believe, his explicit charisma was rooted in his unchangingness. Jordan Barbour, Jennings’s greatest buddy, informed me that the actor, in contrast to everybody else he’d ever met, “by no means codeswitched.” In artwork as in life, Jennings didn’t “grow to be” his characters; he stood, one way or the other, subsequent to them, amused and delighted. Dan Safer, one other pricey buddy, who directed him in Eliza Bent and Dave Malloy’s “Black Wizard / Blue Wizard,” mentioned that he remembers Mikéah’s voice breaking whereas he was singing, at which level he gave himself side-eye in the midst of the notice. “There’s this type of twin wholeness within the efficiency,” Huge Artwork Group’s Caden Manson informed me, talking in regards to the Brechtian necessity to stay a person in such work. “The politics of that flesh and that historical past are there . . . however the interpretive character is loosely laid on and slippery.”
A primary-generation Caribbean American from the Mojave Desert exterior Los Angeles doesn’t typically find yourself in a multichannel experimental downtown theatre inside a repurposed church corridor, however Jennings appeared destined for it. His brother Vejea informed me that their dad and mom named him for the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, so “my dad and mom already knew he was gonna transfer.” He received a state Shakespeare competitors when he was nonetheless in highschool, then went on to the College of California, San Diego. In line with Vejea, Mikéah already knew the place he wanted to be, and, in 2001, he flew to New York.
The theatre that he discovered there had a sturdy avant-garde, in dialog with European apply, taking part in in some homes that also exist (the Connelly Theatre, La Mama), a number of which have closed (the Ontological-Hysteric’s Incubator Arts Challenge; the Collapsable Gap, in Brooklyn), and those who have largely turned away from this sort of theatrical programming (the Kitchen, the erstwhile Dance Theatre Workshop). Jennings instantly began working with Brian Rogers and Sheila Lewandowski, the co-founders of the Chocolate Manufacturing facility, the place he met his future Huge Artwork Group collaborators—which led to a thousand different reveals. The golden age lasted a couple of decade and a half. New York’s more and more unaffordable surroundings despatched many of those artists away; venues closed or reprioritized; worldwide excursions acquired rarer; we misplaced the Village Voice. A number of of Jennings’s greatest alternatives have been not in New York, and he received acclaim in Philadelphia for work with Pig Iron Theatre and the Arden. When Younger Jean Lee spoke on the memorial, she talked about “escaping” from New York into academia, and she or he wasn’t alone. Most of the individuals who made that scene thrilling have left: Manson is now the director of the theatre program at Sarah Lawrence; Scheib is a professor at M.I.T., the place Safer additionally teaches; Lee is at Stanford. Jennings was a prince, however of a misplaced world.
And misplaced worlds don’t pay. The previous couple of years have been bitter. After experiencing debilitating ache, he was recognized with osteonecrosis (bone dying) in his hip, and he needed to have the entire thing changed in 2019, combating with workman’s comp and insurance coverage all the way in which. The hip surgical procedure didn’t go simply, and he had no monetary cushion; twenty years of being one of many metropolis’s most interesting actors had purchased him nothing. A number of of the audio system at his memorial—Becca Blackwell, on video; Lee, who had been near him since working with him on “The Cargo”; Christen Clifford, a fellow performer-with-illness—spoke about this neglect with sorrow and rage. After which COVID drove Jennings residence to California. He started to desert, finally, the acting-in-New-York dream. He reconfigured himself as a professor, first educating at Stanford, creating a curriculum on hybrid digital efficiency, then shifting to Cambridge to show at M.I.T., the place Scheib, certainly one of his nice champions, was intent on absorbing him into the division. The memorial was held on Monday, February sixth, which might have been his first day of sophistication.