By Kimberly Rau
“We just want you to feel something,” announces one character late in the second act of “An Octoroon,” and rest assured, the playwright, cast and director accomplish this tenfold.
Based around Dion Boucicault’s 19th century play “The Octoroon,” Brandon Jacob-Jenkin’s 21st century adaptation takes the tale of a pre-Civil War southern plantation at risk of being sold and turns it on its head. Zoe (Shelley Fort), who is one-eighth black (an “octoroon”) and descended from slaves, lives on the plantation and finds herself caught in the crosshairs of two white men, one who loves her, and one who wants to own her. From the incredibly self-aware introduction (Jacob-Jenkins and Boucicault, played by Marc Pierre and Jeff Church, respectively, meet on stage and have a vigorous argument about how the theater has changed and how shows should be cast and staged), to the modernization of the language (“I don’t know how slaves talked, and neither do you,” Pierre asserts), and the in-your-face use of white-, red- and blackface, this is a play you cannot ignore. Nor should you.
This is a show where the execution is just as, if not more, important than the plot of the play-within-the-play. Pierre greets us on stage and announces that his “therapist” has instructed him to adapt “The Octoroon” as a creative exercise. The play is performed, which includes a murder along with the save-the-plantation storyline, but is interrupted by Pierre and his company, who step out of their various roles to explain the climax of “The Octoroon.” By doing so, it becomes clear that it’s not what you’re seeing, but how you’re seeing it – and by extension, processing it – that’s the most vital part of this theatrical experience.
“This play is funny! Apart from being uncomfortable, it will also make you laugh and then make you have to deal with the fact that you are laughing,” director Joe Wilson Jr. wrote in the program notes.
And it is a funny show! It’s also deeply complicated and nuanced. Fortunately, there’s a strong cast to usher you along the way, under Wilson’s fantastic direction. The entire group is remarkable, with a lot of new faces on Gamm’s stage, widening the company’s already impressive talent pool.
“An Octoroon” is a complex, necessary piece of theater. Yes, you should examine why you’re laughing…and cringing…and clapping (when the slightly nicer white person steps in to outbid the more overtly nasty white person at the slave auction where they are selling people, is that a moment for applause?). There are nearly 200 years between “The Octoroon’s” original 1859 setting and today, but while time has marched on, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Some of the modernization (no spoilers, but there’s a big one near the end of the second act) will hit uncomfortably close to home, and that’s the point. In a time when people seem hell-bent on whitewashing history to make it more palatable, it’s important to remember that not only has America canonically not been kind or fair to minorities in real life or on stage, there’s still a lot of work left to be done.
An Octoroon runs through Feb. 20 at the Gamm Theatre, 220 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401-723-4266. Masks must be worn throughout the show and proof of vaccination or negative Covid test is required.