For only the third time in Broadway history, you can see a play this weekend live as it’s being performed on stage even if you live thousands of miles away. “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” Jocelyn Bioh’s inviting workplace comedy, is being “simulcast” live online at every performance through this Sunday, November 19, when it closes at Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway theater, the Samuel J. Friedman.
When I saw it last month on Broadway (my review), the play offered a series of revelations — about the joyful if precarious lives of African immigrants in New York, and about Black women’s elaborate hair care needs and glories. There were a different series of revelations — about the perks and pitfalls of digital theater — when I saw it this week on my computer screen, via a company called the League of Live Stream Theater. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the perks from the pitfalls.
As with the two previous simulcasts, both of them live streaming shows from Second Stage’s Hayes Theater — Lynn Nottage’s “Clydes” in January 2022 and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy” in February of this year — the live transmission of “Jaja” is the latest innovation in the long history of stage-to-screen presentations, which arguably date back to the invention of movies, but undoubtedly stepped up as a direct result of the peculiar circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. After in-person theaters reopened, several companies continued experimenting with what’s being called hybrid theater — both in person and online.
An obvious perk of seeing the show at home while audiences watch the same performance in the theater is that nobody is going to complain about my using a cell phone or talking to my family about the show as it’s happening, yet we at home could still feel part of the live audience, in part because we could hear the audience’s reaction. Unlike the previous two productions, though, the camera never offered even a brief glimpse of the audience at the Friedman. (One complication for “Jaja” is that there is no intermission.)
What we did get before the play began, another perk, was a brief pre-recorded conversation between the playwright Jocelyn Bioh and the play’s director Whitney White.
The theater captioned the conversation (as it did the Tweet below presenting a scene from the play), but it did not caption the performance that I saw. (Captions are available for the Saturday 11/18 and Sunday 11/19 performances if you request them.) My hope is that theaters will start offering this option (both onstage and online) for their shows routinely. But, whether or not the producers themselves provide captions, they are currently available if you’re watching on a browser like Chrome. (Here are instructions on how to set up live caption in Chrome.) So that’s one built-in perk for digital theater, especially in a show in which the characters are speaking in accents with which you are not familiar.
The price of the simulcast, $69, is steep when compared to what even a first-run movie costs online. The hit movie “Barbie,” for example currently costs $19.99 to buy. But it’s important to point out the difference: The actors in “Barbie” performed once. Those in “Jaja” are performing live each time you watch it; they deserve to be paid for their labor.
That $69 is also actually several dollars cheaper than the cheapest ticket to the show inside the Friedman theater — a moot point at the moment, because the rest of the in-person run is officially sold out. But even if those tickets were available, each would of course just be for one one seat rather than an entire household, and the cheapest seats would offer a more distant view of the stage than the virtual front-row seats.
That brings up another issue, more complicated in “Jaja” than in the previous Broadway simulcasts: the use of multiple camera angles The mix of long shots, medium shots and closeups, unavailable to the naked eye in person can enhance the theatergoing experience on screen. This was especially true in “Between Riverside and Crazy” because it allowed the theatergoer to focus on the expressive facial expressions of Stephen McKinley Henderson in a way that was not possible for every audience member at the Hayes.
But “Jaja” is a different kind of production, an ensemble piece in which most of the ten actors appear on stage most of the time, in the set of a busy salon, with lots of cross-talk and activity. Sometimes even when two people are having a conversation just with one another, they are not necessarily talking right next to one another, This at least partially explains the choice to have noticeably fewer tight close-ups in “Jaja” even in essentially two-character scenes. There are exceptions, such as when a braider is talking to her customer while working on her hair, and when the salon is closed, and the characters are speaking on the street in front of the closed gate:
But when there was a long-shot or even a medium shot when two characters were conversing, my reaction was one of the revelations of the simulcast, offering a lesson in the difference between moviegoing and theatergoing that I hadn’t been aware of before. When watching a screen, we’ve been trained to expect a close-up of a two-person conversation; that’s the norm. (In the few times we don’t get it in a movie, we immediately realize the director is being arty.) So, when this unconscious expectation was thwarted while watching two “Jaja” characters speaking on my computer screen, it felt off, temporarily disrupting my ability to take in what writer John Gardner referred to as “the continuous and vivid dream” of the story.
I’ve been excited about the possibilities of digital theater for years now (Witness my annual ACTA awards: ACTA year 1, ACTA year 2, ACTA year 3.) As I’ve pointed out previously, I hope enough people are convinced by these simulcasts that there is much benefit in continuing to explore the potential interplay between stage and screen. At the very least, perhaps the powers that be will finally see the wisdom in offering scenes from straight plays as well as musical numbers at the annual Tony Awards broadcast.