Actor and playwright Jocelyn Bioh is telling me about the work she’s just finished and currently has on tap. It’s a lot. Ready? Deep breath!
She just finished stints as a staff writer on two Netflix shows: Russian Doll, due in early 2019, and the second season of She’s Gotta Have It. She authored the Outer Critics Circle–winning School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, to be revived at MCC theater this October, and is working on commissioned pieces, as well as an original new musical. As an actress, she has worked all over the city, but got her Broadway break in the Tony-nominated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which closed in 2016. There’s other stuff, too, but you get the idea: This woman is a powerhouse.
What Should We Do?! caught up with Bioh to talk about teaching audiences about colorism, why she reads her reviews as soon as they come out, and which musical artist owns her summer.
What Should We Do?!: Given your diverse and intense workload, how do you avoid burnout?
Jocelyn Bioh: I thankfully discovered years ago that I could pump out a draft of a play in a week. Whether the draft is good is debatable, but it’s something to work with. So when I know I have a lot upcoming on my plate, I game-plan to set aside just enough time to write so I can be free to prep for auditions, read the necessary background work, and work on my memorization. Time management is absolutely key, but I also have an incredibly supportive team at my agency, so that helps a lot, as well.
WSWD: Your acclaimed play School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play focuses on issues of colorism. How cognizant do you think most of your audience is of this issue?
Bioh: I think white America is blissfully ignorant on a lot of issues about race and colorism; partially black is black to them, no matter the shade. I think that when my character, Ericka, a biracial transfer student, walks onto the stage, the audience immediately recognizes her as different from the rest of the cast and hopefully understands that she’s a symbol for the white privilege they possess when they walk into a room. My hope has always been that audiences would be educated through the connection they feel with all the different characters in the cast and not feel lectured to.
WSWD: Do you believe the entertainment world is making a meaningful shift away from a history of racism and sexism, or is there still more talk than action?
Bioh: It’s hard to tell at this stage. Producing works by women and people of color certainly is trendy at the moment, but, in the years ahead, I would like to see that be less of a point of distinction and more the norm. I suppose I think it’s not time to be self-congratulatory just yet.
I’m my own worst critic, so I have never been too concerned with what a stranger with a pen has to say about me.
WSWD: Do you read your reviews while a work is still in progress?
Bioh: I do, even as an actress! A lot of my friends in the business don’t read their press until after the show closes, but I’m a weirdo. Honestly, I’m my own worst critic, so I have never been too concerned with what a stranger with a pen has to say about me. Most of the time, I’ve been invested in a play for at least two months and they have only been with it for two hours, so it would be silly for me to put too much stock in a critic’s opinion.
That said, it would be equally silly not to recognize that critics in this town hold an imbalanced amount of power when it comes to theater; that is why I encourage any company I work with to really invest in audience development. With my plays, the target audience doesn’t care about reviews; all they want is to go to the theater and be moved. Every time I work with theaters to diversify the attendees, my audience helps us take back the power from critics. They’ll pay the money and make the show financially successful, and that is all a not-for-profit theater really wants.
WSWD: Who in the off-Broadway theater world is doing work that you think deserves greater visibility?
Bioh: Both The Flea and Soho Rep are incredible theaters that are producing some amazing work that I would love for more audiences to be aware of. This past fall, The Flea produced Syncing Ink by NSangou Njikam, which was one of the best nights of live theater I have ever witnessed. It was such a game changer, and I really hope it finds a new life in NYC again soon. Soho Rep is also always pushing boundaries, and I love them for it. Its production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is won Obie Awards for playwriting, directing, and acting. It completely blew me away.
WSWD: What music is getting you revved up right now?
Bioh: I have eclectic taste, so I listen to pretty much everything—but the summer belongs to Cardi B! I am obsessed with her.
WSWD: Which contemporary writers and performers do you look to for inspiration?
Bioh: It’s really a question of who I’ve seen last. When I saw Indecent, I walked away from that show thinking Paula Vogel was my favorite playwright. Then I reread Ruined and I knew Lynn Nottage was the greatest playwright ever. And whenever I work on a play with my theater husband, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, I can’t help but think he’s a genius. It’s the same way if you ask me about actors, but Viola Davis has never and can never do any wrong in my book. She’s the GOAT!
WSWD: Describe your perfect New York day.
Bioh: I’m a simple girl; I’m happy with some good food and drinks. I would get a great meal at my favorite restaurant, Quality Eats, then take a boat ride around the city while sipping margaritas. I’d probably cap the night off by seeing a play or a musical. Honestly, if I’m in the company of my friends and my boyfriend, then that’s all it takes to make a perfect summer day.