Few things are certain in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play “Everybody,” including who will play some of the parts at any given performance.
In this modern adaptation of the 15th-century morality play “Everyman,” five actors in the show draw numbers from a lottery onstage each night to find out which role they’re playing. The point of the lottery is to emphasize life’s uncertainties.
Because of the lottery, five of the show’s actors must learn five different parts.
“We’ve had the opportunity to jump in this role, that role [in rehearsals], but literally you don’t know who will be Everybody that night, so you never know who you’ll play off of,” says actor Jamar Jones, who plays one of the five Somebodys in Cadence Theatre Company’s current production of “Everybody.” “In that moment, all you can do is get ready to go for it and trust the work that you’ve done, the preparation.”
In “Everyman,” the medieval morality play that inspired this show, the title character is a stand in for mankind. He learns that when we are brought to death and placed before god, all that matters are a person’s good deeds.
Instead of instructing sinners how to repent and seek redemption, Jacob-Jenkins’ “Everybody” focuses more on the randomness of death and the universality of the human condition. After the character Everybody protests their death, they are allowed to take a friend along for company. Everybody learns that no one that they spent time with during their life will accompany them.
“‘Everybody’ is a ride for sure,” Jones says. “Ultimately, I think it asks some of those large universal questions.”
Rusty Wilson, the show’s director, says the play is ultimately about how we can all be more kind, tolerant and forgiving in our lives.
“It’s a modern riff on the journey we take through life and then the crossover,” Wilson says. “It’s a story about how we transcend from one place to another.”
One of the premier playwrights of our time, Jacobs-Jenkins was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2016 and was a Pulitzer finalist for both “Everybody” and “Gloria,” the latter of which concerns a workplace shooting. He won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play for his plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon.” The former concerns a white Southern family that suddenly has its privilege stripped away. The latter reworks Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama “The Octoroon” to explore race and identity.
Cadence’s “Everybody” was supposed to open earlier this year but was postponed because of omicron concerns. Some roles had to be recast because of scheduling conflicts. With so many actors learning multiple parts in a short amount of time, rehearsals were a bit of a scramble to make sure that those five actors were able to practice each role.
“It’s been down and dirty and fast,” Wilson says of the rehearsals. He adds that the show will continually surprise audiences. “It’s hard to get your footing. The minute you think you know something or you think you’re somewhere, there’s a new twist and then you have to reevaluate.”
Debra Wagoner, who plays the Usher, God and Understanding in the show, says “Everybody” is funny, tragic and relevant our world today.
“You’re definitely going to have a good time,” Wagoner says. “It’s 90 minutes long, and you’ll probably have a couple of a-ha moments that you weren’t expecting.”
Overall, Wilson says the play speaks to the social and political disruptions of our time.
“If you want to see something in theater that is different, that is vibrant, that is thought-provoking, that will make you feel something and make you reflect on your own life and laugh, then come see the show,” Wilson says. “This is a play for our moment in time. This is a much-needed story for anybody who gets a chance to see it, given the state of our world, our politics.”
Cadence Theatre Company’s “Everybody” plays through June 19 at Virginia Rep’s Theatre Gym, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit cadencetheatre.org or call (804) 282-2620.