An Octoroon at The Gamm Theatre in Warwick, RI. January 27th - February 20th

(The Gamm Theatre requires guests to be masked as well as fully vaccinated or provide a verifiable negative COVID-19 test result. The Gamm's policies are available here.)

Interview transcript:

CHUCK HINMAN: This is The Public’s Radio, good morning I’m Chuck Hinman. The Gamm Theatre’s latest play opens tonight. It’s called An Octoroon. Artscape producer James Baumgartner and I talked with actor Marc Pierre and director Joe Wilson Jr.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: The play is a contemporary re-telling of a play from 1859 called The Octoroon. That’s a very antiquated (and kind of racist) term for someone who is one eighth black. Here’s Joe Wilson Jr. who directed the play.

JOE WILSON JR.: This play at the time was the most popular stage play around. The original play, The Octoroon was written by an Irish-born playwright, Dion Boucicault. And he spent some time actually in Louisiana on plantations. And this play was meant to be very much a political commentary on what he saw.

BAUMGARTNER: What audiences will see now, is this an adaptation of that older play, a reinterpretation? How would you describe it?

WILSON: I would describe it as a play within a play. Which is set on a plantation in Louisiana, in which there is the the basic storyline is that the previous master of this plantation has died.

BAUMGARTNER: That previous owner’s nephew has arrived as the heir apparent. And he falls in love with Zoe, who today might identify as multi-racial, but in 1859 was called an octoroon.

HINMAN: The play was written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who everyone calls “BJJ.”

WILSON: I think the fact that it’s being told through the lens of a black playwright, the modern adaptation, the BJJ adaptation, allows us to, to really look at identity as the complicated thing that it is. Race is a social construct. We all know that. And when you begin to have a group of actors in a space, and they're putting on all these faces, that many of which are rooted in racial stereotypes, yes. But they're also putting on the face of the melodrama.

HINMAN: The playwright, BJJ appears as a character in the play. He’s played by Marc Pierre. 

HINMAN: I've read that the play is an uncomfortable experience, and also a joyful one for presumably, the audience, but I'm wondering for performers, do you get that same experience? Are you uncomfortable, at the same time, as you are joyful doing this play?

MARC PIERRE: Absolutely. For myself, and I feel comfortable enough to say this for the cast, that we all kind of look for this kind of work, the work that is uncomfortable, and pushes us to ask ourselves questions that we would not have asked ourselves before, it pushes us to, you know, reevaluate ourselves as artists, what we – what theater means to us. And then on top of that, we have the joy of bringing that to a space, bringing that to like, wanting everybody to feel this sense of… maybe we're not too sure of the answers to this, but that's okay, we're in this space as a community to help us figure this out.

HINMAN: Here’s director Joe Wilson Jr.

WILSON: These plays that Jenkins writes are all about us taking ownership for the stuff. It's like, we can't go forward until we really, really, really look back and dig in it. And it's messy, you know, but we oftentimes we even argue about what to look back on, or how to look back on it, or what the truth was, or what really happened, or when did it all start. We can argue about 1619 or 1776, who cares when it comes down to it. But when it comes to the legacy of white supremacy, and anti blackness in this country, and so and we've all borne the burden of that, in terms of how we use race and the construct of race and identity to fracture people, which is ultimately about the protection of and preservation of money and power. And so Jenkins is asking us all along this journey, so it's creating a layer of trust. And also it was important for me to create an environment where we can have a party, this is going to be a party. But we as a company, we're not going to wimp out, we're gonna step into this. Because of how we use space, how we use our imaginations, it’s a beautiful production. I really … they've never seen the Gamm Theatre look like it's looked for this production.

BAUMGARTNER: And we’ll leave that as a tease for what you can see starting tonight.

HINMAN: The Gamm Theatre’s production of “An Octoroon” opens tonight and runs through February 20th.