The Gamm’s Production of An Octoroon is Must-See Theater

Catch the show before it closes on February 20

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Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ incisive, eviscerating, and hilarious play An Octoroon, a deconstruction of forgotten Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, took NYC by storm in 2014. It’s now making its long overdue Rhode Island premiere at The Gamm Theatre, directed with a sure hand by local theater treasure Joe Wilson, Jr.

Jacobs-Jenkins has crafted a play within a play. Hanging on the bones of Boucicault’s melodrama, it tells the story of the fate of a faded Louisiana plantation up for auction. Will it go to the cruel former overseer or our hero, the wide-eyed cousin newly arrived from Paris? Both men have designs on Zoe, a freed slave and the titular character, which means one-eighth of Black descent. The language (and music played throughout) is decidedly modern, and the playwright breaks the fourth wall with commentary from himself (BJJ) as well as Boucicault throughout.

The production reappropriates the images and stereotypes of minstrel shows (the Mammy and the Uncle Tom, for example)ut it is Blackness as seen through a white gaze and how that is viewed through the eyes of the playwright, a Black man. But it is Blackness as seen through a white gaze and how that is viewed through the eyes of the playwright, a Black man. It’s a brilliant subversion of an antiquated mode of storytelling that keeps the audience laughing while a very real American tragedy – slavery – plays out on stage. Unlike a traditional melodrama, there is no real happy ending. We are the ones still writing that, after all, a point driven home in the final, heart-wrenching moments of the production.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, including a mind-shattering performance by Marc Pierre, who does triple duty as playwright Jacobs-Jenkins, as well as the hero George and the villain M’Closky. His performance includes an inspired piece of stage choreography when a knife fight breaks out between the two aforementioned melodramatic caricatures.

I want to give special mention to Jackie Davis and Michelle L. Walker, who portray two house slaves, Dido and Minnie, whose comic banter serves as guiding voices throughout the story. I have not seen two actors play off each other so well since the indelible pairing of Philip Bosco and Brian Murray in a starry-filled A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Lincoln Center over 20 years ago. Watching Davis and Walker together onstage was a treat.

 

From its rousing opening dance number to its final shattering tableau, The Gamm’s production of An Octoroon is a must-see. If this is theater in Rhode Island, I am here for it. Through February 20. GammTheatre.org

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