You could best describe “An Octoroon” as a play surrounding a play.
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, his modern play incorporates another, written by Dion Boucicault in 1859. That play centers on a crumbling plantation in Louisiana, and the fight to control it and the people who call it home. One of those people is Zoe (Shelley Fort), an octoroon because she is one-eighth black. George is heir apparent to his late uncle’s estate, but M’Closky, the estate’s overseer, has different plans. George falls in love with Zoe, but M’Closky is intent on breaking up that relationship.
Written in the years building up to the Civil War, the original play offered stereotyped characters struggling with right and wrong. It explored using people as estate assets. It poked at slavery.
Jacobs-Jenkins takes this play and spins it around, weaving in modern commentary and some farcical moments. The play opens with Marc Pierre as Jacobs-Jenkins. “I am a black playwright. I am here to tell a story.” And as he speaks, he starts to apply whiteface in order to play both George and M’Closky.
Jeff Church joins Pierre on stage, first as Boucicault with the two of them sparring about theatrical technicalities. Then Church applies redface, becoming Wahnotee, a Native American complete with a feathered headdress and tomahawk.
We meet Dido (Jackie Davis) and Minnie (Michell L. Walker), the “house darkies,” slaves charged with maintaining the main quarters. We meet Pete and Paul, both played by Jason Quinn, who are also slaves attached to the plantation.
There’s also Alison Russo’s Miss Sunnyside, a vapid Southern belle who provides some comic relief. It’s impossible to say any one actor was better than another. They are all superb.
One nod, though, must go to Pierre, who is able to pull off a brawl between George and M’Closky, ending up with them both – remember, played only by him – wrestling on the floor.
Not to give anything away, but part of the story centers on photographic evidence of a crime. Jacobs-Jenkins stops the play at that moment, pointing out that in 1859, photography was in its infant stages, and to present photographic evidence to the audiences at that time would be something remarkable. Not so today. Instead, he wheels the large screen TV back onto the stage, showing clips of very recent race-related riots and clips of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol. Photographic evidence – but some choose not to see it.
The portrayals are outlandish at times, but when you look closely, you’ll notice that what was going on in 1859 is in some ways going on in 2022. People of color are often looked at as sub-human by some members of our society. That’s not right, and that’s the point. The point of the play, as described at the end, was to “make you feel something.”
It accomplishes that purpose, but it’s more than one thing. Things that get muddled. Things that make you think – or at least, ask you to think.
“An Octoroon” runs at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick through February 20. For tickets and information, call the box office at 401.723.4266 or visit www.gammtheatre.org.