When Office Politics Take Center Stage

a collage of a person
When Office Politics Take Center StageIfe Olujobi (L) and Whitney White (R), courtesy of the Public Theater

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All pristine white walls and clean corporate furniture, the scenery for the world premiere of Jordans—Ife Olujobi’s biting play about racial and gender dynamics in the workplace—gave away nothing about the horror to come.

Set at the fictional Atlas Studios, a full-service rental studio and production facility desperately trying to remain relevant, the play—which debuted April 11 at New York’s Public Theater and ran through May 19—follows Jordan (Naomi Lorrain), the space’s only Black employee. Along with serving as the company’s receptionist, she also takes care of other employees’ lunch orders, expenses, and the manual labor they prefer not to do. Essentially, Jordan carries the office on her shoulders—and yet her boss, Hailey (Kate Walsh), fails to recognize her thankless and wide-ranging contributions. When Hailey brings in a new director of culture, a Black man also named Jordan (Toby Onwumere), to help Atlas fix its “culture problem” (read: appeal to a more diverse client base), it quickly becomes clear he was brought in for optics and not to help the company evolve. (Right off the bat, employees confuse the two Jordans for one another.) Ultimately, the Jordans—a woman who has existed in predominantly white spaces and a male HBCU grad—have different approaches to navigating Atlas and achieving success, and the friction within their relationship, compounded by their repeated dehumanization by their white colleagues, comes to a head in a grisly final scene where no one comes out on top.

Directed by Obie and Lilly winner Whitney White, who is currently nominated for the Tony for Best Director for Jaja’s African Hair Braiding and was selected in 2020 for Rolex's Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, Jordans’ run at the Public offered both horror and hysterics, with surreal underscoring by sound designer Fan Zhang that dovetailed in eerie perfection with hypnagogic lighting choices. Olujobi’s sharp humor adds moments of levity throughout the play.

Here, Olujobi and White connect to discuss bringing Jordans to life.

Whitney White: Can you remind me how you started writing the play? I know about when you wrote it and where you were, but how did you literally start?

Ife Olujobi: Jordans is only the second full-length play I ever wrote. I was 23 and working at these film production companies and having this experience of being the only Black person in an office. At one job, I was the receptacle for a lot of people’s unwanted labor. Whatever stuff they didn’t want to do, they would hand it off to me. I also ended up being the receptacle for a lot of people’s low-key aggression. At another company that was much more outwardly progressive, I was still also only one of two Black people, but they said they really wanted my ideas. I started to voice them, but that’s not actually what they wanted. It was very much like, “We want you to be here, and we want everyone to be like, ‘Great, now we have this new Black person here.’ ” But when I started voicing my ideas, it was like, “No, no, no—please stop.” I really wanted to write about those experiences, about the psychic toll that I felt like they were taking on me.

a person talking on a cell phone
Naomi Lorrain in the world-premiere production of Jordans, written by Ife Olujobi and directed by Whitney WhiteJoan Marcus

I also wanted to explore racial dynamics not only between Black and white people, but between Black men and Black women. That was something else I was seeing at work, this dynamic between the entry-level Black female employee and the higher-level Black male. I wanted to explore what the expectations are between those two people, what pressure is put upon them. Especially when they’re in a workplace where it feels like they’re forced to compete, or like only one of them can really shine in an environment.

The third thing is, I had read this little novella called The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which is about this lowly municipal worker who hates his life. One night this guy comes to see him who has the same name and looks just like him, and then he befriends him and takes over his life, and the original guy goes crazy. Originally, this play was meant to be a loose riff or adaptation on that. Once I discovered that the two Jordans were going to be of different genders, that exploded the play and turned it into its own thing.

WW: When you look at the number of hours, minutes, days, the portion of our lives that we spend in workspaces, it gets a little disturbing. We all spend most of our waking life in these spaces that are all hierarchical, and the fact that your humanity, your personhood are all hinging upon where you enter that hierarchy is something that 100 percent attracted me to the play. Until Jordans, there wasn’t a brilliant play that really looked at modern, corporate—post-corporate, even—spaces and the toll that those spaces and the people that inhabit them can take on Black bodies.

IO: That was one of my big realizations after graduating college and really entering the working world. I was like, “I spend more time with these people than I spend with anyone else in my life, and they don’t like me. They don’t even know what my name is.”

WW: It’s a deep existential problem that we spend the majority of our waking lives in spaces in which we don’t like each other. And we do anything to get on top of each other. And if you are a Black woman in that space, you’re coming in often truly at the bottom. Working on Jordans forced me to really reconsider stories and narratives in my own family with much more softness, love, and humanization. I think about my cousin who worked a desk job until she died, you know what I mean?

The tea, though—the play is really funny. Every time I went to the show, I was laughing so much. And I feel like a lot of women that have seen the show have the same response. Not just Black women, but any woman who’s ever had to ever get a photocopy for someone in a space. Where does your funny bone come from?

a group of people in a room
Kate Walsh, Naomi Lorrain, and Toby Onwumere in JordansJoan Marcus

IO: I also laughed a lot when watching the play. Some of it is because of the dialogue, but so much of it is because of what the actors are doing and the way that we put everything together. A lot of the things that I find funny come from situational comedy. You and I were trying to work on crafting moments that could be for everybody. The writing of this play was born out of a lot of anger and hurt, but in really leaning into that anger for the first time in my writing, I also felt liberated to be like, “Okay, fuck it.” I think comedy came from that as well, in my trying to be like, “You know what? I’m just trying to have fun with this. I’m trying to make myself laugh, and hopefully, that will also make other people laugh.”

WW: Comedy is the best way to get something out, because you can laugh until you cry. A lot of comedy comes from failures in the world—characters failing each other or being horrible to each other. When I say comedy, it’s a bigger thing than just laughs and gags. And then we have a huge push at the end of the show to horror. We’ve been able to go from straight comedy to horror. I think that’s been the aesthetic challenge and joy of the show for me. I don’t know when I’ll get to do that again in my artistic career, to direct work that makes me laugh so hard and then also terrifies me.

IO: Some people laughed at the end of the play, too, and I’m like, “You know what? All responses are valid.” Even within that last horror scene, there is comedy amidst the carnage. I think it was a real shock to the system for people, but in this lovely way that does feel very unique.

WW: We’ve had a lot of stimulating conversations around the relationship between Jordan and male Jordan and what it is meant to convey. I feel like we should talk about it. Because it’s funny how political issues surrounding race and oppression short-circuit people’s brains. It’s like they can no longer see these very simple, clear things. I’m like, “Okay, this is a satirical comedy and horror about what happens when the person on bottom tries to get to the top. That’s a very clear story. What makes it unclear when those two people are Black?”

a group of people sitting at a table
The company of the world-premiere production of JordansJoan Marcus

IO: The play is trying to do a lot. Going into writing this play, I was definitely aware of a renaissance of Afro-surrealism that had been happening for a few years through film and television and theater. I was really enjoying a lot of those projects, but I also had questions about some of them. One of the biggest questions that kept popping up was their relationship to gender. I felt like a lot of the Afro-surrealist projects I was seeing were very good at exploring the experience of being Black in America, but there was another part of that experience that wasn’t being explored.

Black people are not a monolith. We are not having one experience. During the process of continuing to develop my play through lockdown, through the George Floyd protests, I was having conversations with my friends about, “Okay, what about violence towards Black women? What about violence towards Black trans women?” I wanted to write a play that I felt could at least attempt to hold all of these things.

I had to figure out how to talk about the differences between the Jordans as people, in terms of their backgrounds and where they come from, because they are very different in that way. Male Jordan is coming from this very Black context—he went to [the HBCU] Morehouse, that’s his life. Jordan was raised in these very white environments, with a lot of people who didn’t look like her. And that has also affected her worldview in a lot of ways. That is one of the fundamental breaking points between these two people: They have these different worldviews and different ideas of how to succeed. I think even that alone can be difficult for people to hold onto. On top of that, there’s the difference in their gender. One thing we talked about was: What are the ways in which we’re illustrating the difference between how Jordan and male Jordan are being treated in the workplace based on their gender? At one point, we were talking about a scene, and our brilliant dramaturg, Nissy Aya, was like, “The conversation is already gendered because of the work that Jordan has to do, right? Jordan is the receptionist. She is the one cleaning up after everybody, and this is the kind of work that women are expected to do.” Black women, especially, are expected to do that kind of labor, even in professional environments. It’s going to be harder for Jordan to get to a place where the male Jordan is, because people don’t see her as being a person that can reach those kinds of levels.

WW: I think it is a very incendiary thing still to this day to audaciously discuss our position in society and workspaces, our being Black women. I think we are very used to looking at stories in which the Black body is in an oppressive relationship with a non-Black body, but it’s very challenging to look at the possibility that a lot of people come in and out of the hierarchy, including other Black people. And we still occupy this position at the bottom, and if we dare to go to the top, there are consequences.

a man and a woman sitting on a couch
Toby Onwumere and Naomi Lorrain in JordansJoan Marcus

Now, how we go to the top is also a part of it. I don’t think that we’ve created a play where anybody is a hero. Everyone is a villain, and everyone is willing to go way too far for the sake of getting the check, staying in the system, including the Black characters. That was probably my favorite thing to excavate while we were working on it, but it’s also the thing I’ve had the most conversations about.

IO: I think that people want to see one or both of the Jordans as a hero, as sort of a victim of this thing. Part of the tragedy of the play is, there is a scenario in which these two people could have been friends, could have helped each other out. But because they wanted the money, the power, the status, they played by the rules of this toxic world, rather than leaving and going to create their own world. It has pit them against each other. It has created a dynamic that is unsustainable for them both.

At the end of the play, there’s this realization of “Oh, wow, okay, so really nobody wins in this situation. This is not a situation that people are going to get out of just by playing by the same rules and doing the same stuff.”

WW: Boom, that’s it right there. That’s the meta gift of the play. If we are all too desperate to still get the carrot that the system dangles in front of us, nobody’s going to get out. That is the spice of the play for me.

I learned early on in my directing career that a cast of characters is really thrilling when you have people who are diametrically opposed. Over the course of Jordans, all the characters come in being like, “Okay, it’s just another day at the office. Let me get by.” But they eventually realize there are deep-seated political differences [between them] that will never be reconciled. And then at the end, they’re unable to help each other. That was a thrilling thing you really committed to in the play. We found incredible actors who committed to that journey and designers who facilitated that journey. By the time the characters are in that office, at the end, it’s like: Everything has to be burnt down, no one’s making it out of here.

IO: I love this play. I think it challenges me even now still. I stand behind it, and I’m excited to see what future lives it may have.

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