“The Comeuppance” Reveals Death’s ‘Aside Effects’

Every character in the contemporary playwright's latest gives voice to Death.

“I have been experimenting with a new approach to things,” says a character embodying Death in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ haunting and haunted new play The Comeuppance, running at the Signature Theatre until July 9. “I’ve decided to make it more of a practice to drop by and check in on people.”

A woman and a man sit on a dark porch
Brittany Bradford and Caleb Eberhardt. Production Photos by Monique Carboni

And check in he—it? they?—does throughout the play’s two-plus hours. Speaking first through Emilio (Caleb Eberhardt), an artist who has been living in Berlin, Death here is a spectral presence that flits in and out of the mouths of the members of a self-described Multi-Ethnic Reject Group, or MERGE, who have convened for their twentieth high school reunion in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Along with Emilio, other members of MERGE include Ursula (Brittany Bradford), something of a recluse since going blind in one eye; Caitlin (Susannah Flood), unhappily married to a much older retired cop; Kristina (Shannon Tyo), an anesthesiologist with a brood of children and a strong aversion to butts; and Francisco (Bobby Moreno), Kristina’s cousin and a veteran with symptoms of PTSD. Whether Francisco was originally a member of MERGE quickly proves to be a point of tension among the characters who become increasingly confrontational with each other as their pre-reunion reunion party drags on.

This is not the first time Death, or one of its alter egos, has figured in one of Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays. His play Everybody updated the 15th-century Everyman, an allegory about the end that awaits us all. The figure of Death in that play “is an entity that, like all of us, is just living its life and doing things it feels compelled to do,” Jacobs-Jenkins told me in a recent phone interview.

Even after he thought he was done with Everybody, the figure of death continued to stalk his mind, and he began contemplating what it might look like to give it a bigger canvas to work on. Enter The Comeuppance. The characters in it all serve as hosts, at different times, to a single entity that goes by different monikers: Amokye, Ankou, Atropos, Hine-nui-te-pō and Magwayen, to name a few. The conceit is, in some ways, a reversal of the game-like idea animating Everybody; in that play, a bingo cage was used to randomly determine the roles that each actor would play each night—with the notable exception of Death, who was played by the same actor. In The Comeuppance, Death speaks through multiple characters in a singular, Darth Vader-esque voice.

A group of people sits on an old fashioned porch
Caleb Eberhardt, Bobby Moreno, Shannon Tyo, Susannah Flood and Brittany Bradford. Production Photos by Monique Carboni

A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant as well as several other awards, Jacobs-Jenkins is one of our most consistently provocative and dazzling contemporary playwrights. His plays, often suffused with a sense of meta-theatrical playfulness and caustic awareness about the various plantational legacies of the United States, have explored everything from toxic workplaces (Gloria) to the long arc of slavery (An Octoroon) to minstrelsy and racist stereotypes (Neighbors). His far-seeing plays often straddle different worlds or time periods, so it’s fitting that he recently adapted Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred for FX on Hulu. It tells the story of a Black woman who finds herself commuting between 2016 Los Angeles and the 19th-century Maryland plantation of one of her white ancestors.

The Comeuppance was, as Jacobs-Jenkins told me, a “page-one rewrite” of a play he wrote ten years ago and then filed away in a drawer because “I didn’t really know what it was or what it was trying to be.”

During the pandemic, he found out that one of his friends died and made his way back to the script. The distance of years put “wind in the play’s sails,” he said, making The Comeuppance partly a COVID project—there are references to Trump, the pandemic, Roe v. Wade, and “whatever the fuck is going on in the Supreme Court”—as well as a vessel for larger questions about how characters change over time (identity is never a stable unit of meaning in Jacobs-Jenkins’ plays) and what it means to belong to a group glued together by rejection.

Very early on, Jacobs-Jenkins knew he wanted to tailor parts to the actors.

“The exciting thing about birthing a new play is making something out of nothing with who’s there,” he told me. The director Eric Ting brought a “very patient and soulful energy” to the play, guiding the cast through seventy pages of rewritten material before it opened earlier this month. Jacobs-Jenkins initially experimented with having the actors talk in unison but eventually settled for a more individuated approach.

The figure of the psychopomp—a kind of usher to the underworld or death doula—“seems to be in every culture across all time,” Jacobs-Jenkins remarked, and the sheer variety of its names evinces that “every attempt to capture it is imperfect” even as it “honors all the ways in which the human imagination has tried to capture the experience of death, or the threat of it, or its personality.”

A woman gestures wildly to a man
Susannah Flood and Bobby Moreno. Production Photos by Monique Carboni

Or as Death puts it in the play: “Historically, I’ve been rarely met with anything other than fear or anger or regret and, as I’m sure you can imagine, that sort of energy gets… taxing.”

That this observation, like all of Death’s digressions, is delivered as an aside seems as important as what the emissary has to say about each of the corpses in waiting. It could be a metaphysical gesture—that death seems like a footling concern, banished to the boondocks of consciousness until it’s not—or a way of getting us to pay closer attention to the fugitive moments that give life meaning. To be human, one could say, is to be an ex officio member of life’s reject group. Welcome to the club.

“The Comeuppance” Reveals Death’s ‘Aside Effects’