RI Gamm Theater’s Drama “An Octoroon” Tackles Racial Stereotypes

Against the backdrop of a racist society, a playwright and theater company seek to spark conversation as the Gamm Theater looks back on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ work to stage ‘An Octoroon’.

“It’s liberating to do a play that is so subversive in its nature,” says director Joe Wilson Jr. of the production, which opens Jan. 27. The drama, he says, gives viewers a guide to “how to talk about race.”

“We’re all trying to find the words, and so many things change,” he says. “In the message, there are opportunities for constructive collisions.”

Famed Jacobs-Jenkins uses a play-in-a-play construction to reimagine 19th-century melodrama for “An Octoroon,” which won an Obie Award as Best New American Play. When a wealthy plantation dies, his nephew arrives and falls in love with a woman who is one-eighth black, then confronts an evil overseer who has plans of his own. The modern recounts both stints and critiques of how racing was handled in the original version.

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“This piece spoke to me, especially now,” Wilson says. “It’s about what it means to be an artist of color. It’s the existential crisis of all artists – why we do what we do, how powerful we want our art to be.

In approaching “An Octoroon,” he says, he dissected the layers of racial tension within it.

“Melodrama shapes the narrative of who we want to be,” he says. “It’s rooted in slavery and separating people along racial and class lines for people to maintain power and, most importantly, out of fear.”

As a black man, Wilson bristled at the idea that the original play, opening just before the Civil War, had white actors performing in blackface. He turned the concept upside down, bringing his diverse cast to life with people of all colors.

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“There’s a black guy in whiteface, a white guy in redface — they all play all races,” he says, adding that the choice loosens up the racial tones in the room. “The essence of melodrama is to make people feel something and then ask, ‘Why do I feel like this?'”

Such questions – Why did I laugh at this? Why do I feel bad laughing at this? Why do I always find it so funny? — enable society to move forward, he says.

“It’s about building a space where people are safe and can trust each other,” says Wilson. “Who else is laughing?” It’s like an onion, with lots of questions to ask.

It started with the actors, whom he nurtures individually as each examines their story and feelings about the play’s dialogue.

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“I have to approach each actor and help them relate to the characters based on their experience,” Wilson explains. “We have to look back to look forward.”

Theater is a place where introspection and questioning seep as audience and actors explore themes and emotions together, he says. Laughing together, he adds, “provides a sense of community.”

Marc Pierre, left, and Jeff Church rehearse a fight scene for the Gamm Theater production of "An Octoron."

“The work must start with ourselves. We love binary choices in this country, and no one wants to be alone. It takes courage to speak up and be an ally,” he says. “It’s an incredibly democratizing experience to sit together in a room having these feelings. In places of comfort and friction, that’s where the growth is.

“It takes space and grace to be in this process, or we will end up here, time and time again.”

If you are going to …

What: “An Octoroon”

Or:The Gamm Theater, 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick.

When: 27 Jan-Feb 20

Tickets: $35 (Previews, Jan. 27-30); $49-69 (regular run)

Information: (401) 723-4266, gammatheatre.org