Office politics gone awry in 'Jordans'
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Office politics gone awry in 'Jordans'
Matt Russell, Brontë England-Nelson, Kate Walsh, and Naomi Lorrain in the play “Jordans” at the Public Theater in New York on April 10, 2024. Alternating between funny and bleak, the Public Theater’s latest production tackles race and the modern workplace. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- The workplace in “Jordans,” an ambitious but unwieldy new play at the Public Theater, is so white that it’s a bit alarming. I don’t mean to say it’s full of white people (though it certainly is that, too), but rather that the aesthetic of the space itself catches your attention: minimalist, modern, white screens and walls. By the end of the play, however, those bright white spaces will be covered with blood.

Jordan (Naomi Lorrain) is the only Black employee at Atlas Studios, a “full-service rental studio and production facility,” as she says to a potential client. She’s the one who answers the phones; she also gets the lunches, collects receipts and calls maintenance. When her boss, Hailey (Kate Walsh), decides the company’s new path to revenue involves appealing to a more “diverse” demographic, she hires a director of culture: a young Black man also named Jordan (Toby Onwumere).

Although their white colleagues somehow can’t seem to tell them apart, the two Jordans find themselves at odds: She knows how to “play the game,” even if that means compromising her integrity. He (dubbed “1. Jordan” in the script) imagines another path to success — a Jay-Z level of achievement that he will then put back into the neighborhood. But as Jordan sees an opportunity to advance, the team takes on a brand launch event for a rapper that transforms into a grisly horror-movie scenario.

Written by playwright Ife Olujobi (she/they) in their off-Broadway debut, and directed by Whitney White, “Jordans” feels a little “The Other Black Girl” and a little “American Psycho.” The play tries to make a satire about race in the workplace and then, within that, gender — the differences in how Black men and Black women might act and be treated in a predominantly white workplace. But it’s also largely a grim parable about the terrors of consumer culture, including the commodification and appropriation of Black people.

Many of the targets of the satire feel too obvious: hip influencers, like a twerking white pop star and super-masc energy drink bros; the white boss fumbling through hollow corporate-speak about diversity; the white female colleagues bonding over how unfairly hard they work while their Black female colleague endlessly bustles around in the background.

“Jordans” is funniest when it allows the satire to creep even further into the surreal, like when a white colleague is flung from her seat, traumatized, by a Black man’s slightly raised voice. And it’s sharpest when it explores how Black people, and Black culture, become the currency white people want to use. In one scene, Hailey stalks toward 1. Jordan like a predator, and examines him like a master would a slave on the auction block. She doesn’t know if she wants to sell Black people or sell herself to them, but either way her relationship with Blackness is one of commerce. Humanity has nothing to do with it.

Lorrain gives a sharp performance as Jordan, and her character’s wily scheming remains entertaining to watch even as the play spirals out. Her character works harder than everyone else in a way that cleverly extends beyond the fourth wall: Throughout the show Jordan even does most of the set and prop arrangements. For a dinner scene she unpacks a whole table spread from her purse; this character is so overworked that she’s her own stagehand.

And yet what’s disappointing is that the play doesn’t take the time to decode what it’s really using the Jordans to say about accountability and support among the Black workforce and the intersection of race and gender in the workplace. The script tries to make a story line involving a surprising pregnancy do much of that work, but the nuances of the argument never come through.

White’s direction doesn’t help the show figure out how to prioritize its points, and the production also struggles to strike that tonal sweet spot between absurdly funny and absurdly bleak. It toggles back and forth until the end, when it too abruptly pushes its satire into a space of brutal spectacle.

What’s Black and white and red all over? Somewhere in here is a dad joke about wannabe-woke workplace culture being murder. But just like “Jordans,” that joke is missing its punchline.


Through May 12 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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