Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Prince of a Lost World

On Monday, a crowd of theatremakers, artists, and friends packed into the Chocolate Factory, an experimental performance venue in Long Island City, to memorialize the actor Mikéah Ernest Jennings. The dazzling forty-three-year-old died suddenly last year, a shocking loss both to his loved ones and to the theatre at large. His face was everywhere in the room, in both pictures and videos—a queer Black Adonis, his hair as high as a peacock’s fan, septum piercing flashing, eyes wide 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 gloves as she read a eulogy for her “Meeks”; the cellist Melody Giron, weeping, wore a pair of his sunglasses to play a piece by Bach. Jennings was a powerful actor, particularly in hybrid styles—dance theatre, for example, and the kind of live-camera stage performance pioneered by Big Art—and he also clearly had a gift for binding people close.

For a long, wonderful while, Jennings was a New York fixture. Glamorous and dancerly, he was an acknowledged beauty—at his memorial, three different speakers mentioned the splendor of his calves alone. He always dressed to stun: a linen shorts-coverall with no shirt to go to the dump; scarves worn with Isadora Duncan panache; eventually, blouses with deep V-necklines to show off his cardiac-surgery scar. It was his combination of technical precision and puckish sprezzatura, though, that made him so crucial to difficult work onstage. Complex text was like water to him. He could make seventeenth-century English political theory sound casually modern (Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire”); he could rattle off sci-fi nonsense in a Ludlamesque “intergalactic gay extravaganza” (“I Promised Myself to Live Faster,” with Pig Iron Theatre Company); he could holler an aria against the N-word (Marcus Gardley’s “The Box”) right into your deep memory. A 2016 Signature Theatre production of three expressionist plays showcased his extraordinary capacity: in María Irene Fornés’s “Drowning,” he played a potato-shaped alien naïf, who falls in love with a picture in the newspaper; in Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” he dragged himself across the stage as an excruciated Jesus. I can think of no other actor who could span that particular octave in a single evening.

April Matthis, who starred in “Funnyhouse,” talked to me about the excitement she felt at playing opposite another of the few Black actors who had made their (sometimes lonely) way through New York’s “left-of-center” scene. She had first seen Jennings in 2009, in Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,” in which he was a buoyant, upward-flying comic spirit, and she had assumed that, at some point, they would compare notes. That “Shipment” performance, which you can watch online, is another killer. In the very first scene, Jennings and Prentice Onayemi execute a strange dance choreographed by Faye Driscoll, cycling through moves that seem to be borrowed from minstrelsy and modern dance, all done with hysterical, puppet-betrayed-by-its-strings rhythm. The show, devised with the all-Black company, was an extraordinary object, frank and blistering—and even in a staggering cast Jennings was the standout. Dito Van Reigersberg, whose evil space bishop in “I Promised Myself” fell mitre-over-high-heels for Jennings, first clocked him in “The Shipment,” too; he remembers thinking, Oh, that guy has that thing where, when he’s onstage, you can’t look at anyone but him.

He was right. That same year, I wrote about Jennings as the “scene stealer of the week” for Time Out New York. I had just seen him in Big Art Group’s “SOS”, a rapid-fire, flash-download, sensory overload of an entire Internet’s worth of “discourse,” channelled through a vamped-up ensemble playing their own avatars on massive video screens. The cast members were sometimes plushy forest animals, and turned into a bunch of drag queens in the “Realness Liberation Front,” partying at the apocalypse. At the end, Jennings and Litteer and the rest thrashed around while cocooned in bendy balloons, swishing like demented car washes or Nick Cave sculptures gone feral. You might think that it would be impossible to “steal a scene” in such chaos, but Jennings could and did. (And you can see him do it here.)

This stuff was his specialty. The director Jay Scheib’s company also used live video feeds and onstage screens, and Jennings starred in several of Scheib’s groundbreaking productions, including playing the title role in “Platonov, or the Disinherited,” from 2014, which was live-edited as it was performed at the Kitchen, and broadcast at two New York movie theatres. Jennings’s warmth is the obvious explanation for how magnetic he could be in such technology-filtered shows, but, I think, his particular charisma was rooted in his unchangingness. Jordan Barbour, Jennings’s best friend, told me that the actor, unlike everyone else he’d ever met, “never codeswitched.” In art as in life, Jennings did not “become” his characters; he stood, somehow, next to them, amused and delighted. Dan Safer, another dear friend, who directed him in Eliza Bent and Dave Malloy’s “Black Wizard / Blue Wizard,” said that he remembers Mikéah’s voice breaking while he was singing, at which point he gave himself side-eye in the middle of the note. “There is this kind of dual wholeness in the performance,” Big Art Group’s Caden Manson told me, speaking about the Brechtian necessity to remain an individual in such work. “The politics of that flesh and that history are there . . . but the interpretive character is loosely laid on and slippery.”

A first-generation Caribbean American from the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles does not often end up in a multichannel experimental downtown theatre inside a repurposed church hall, but Jennings seemed destined for it. His brother Vejea told me that their parents named him for the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, so “my parents already knew he was gonna move.” He won a state Shakespeare competition when he was still in high school, then went on to the University of California, San Diego. According to Vejea, Mikéah already knew where he needed to be, and, in 2001, he flew to New York.

The theatre that he found there had a robust avant-garde, in conversation with European practice, playing in some houses that still exist (the Connelly Theatre, La Mama), several that have closed (the Ontological-Hysteric’s Incubator Arts Project; the Collapsable Hole, in Brooklyn), and those that have largely turned away from this type of theatrical programming (the Kitchen, the erstwhile Dance Theatre Workshop). Jennings immediately started working with Brian Rogers and Sheila Lewandowski, the co-founders of the Chocolate Factory, where he met his future Big Art Group collaborators—which led to a thousand other shows. The golden age lasted about a decade and a half. New York’s increasingly unaffordable environment sent many of these artists away; venues closed or reprioritized; international tours got rarer; we lost the Village Voice. Several of Jennings’s best opportunities were no longer in New York, and he won acclaim in Philadelphia for work with Pig Iron Theatre and the Arden. When Young Jean Lee spoke at the memorial, she talked about “escaping” from New York into academia, and she wasn’t alone. Many of the people 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., where Safer also teaches; Lee is at Stanford. Jennings was a prince, but of a lost world.

And lost worlds do not pay. The last few years were bitter. After experiencing debilitating pain, he was diagnosed with osteonecrosis (bone death) in his hip, and he had to have the whole thing replaced in 2019, fighting with workman’s comp and insurance all the way. The hip surgery did not go easily, and he had no financial cushion; twenty years of being one of the city’s finest actors had bought him nothing. Several of the speakers at his memorial—Becca Blackwell, on video; Lee, who had been close to him since working with him on her 2005 play “Pullman, WA”; Christen Clifford, a fellow performer-with-illness—spoke about this neglect with sorrow and rage. And then COVID drove Jennings home to California. He began to abandon, at last, the acting-in-New-York dream. He reconfigured himself as a professor, first teaching at Stanford, developing a curriculum on hybrid digital performance, then moving to Cambridge to teach at M.I.T., where Scheib, one of his great champions, was intent on absorbing him into the department. The memorial was held on Monday, February 6th, which would have been his first day of class.

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