Richmond theater-goers may already be familiar with Obie-winning playwright and two-time Pulitzer finalist Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is at the center of his own play "An Octoroon," opening at TheatreLab on May 17.
A Washington native, the 34-year-old Jacobs-Jenkins wrote "Appropriate," the family drama produced last summer by Cadence Theatre Company. This year, Richmond audiences can see his work at Cadence again with his 2015 play "Gloria" opening just one week before TheatreLab's "An Octoroon."
So what is it about Jacobs-Jenkins' work that's drawing so much attention?
"He's inserted himself into his work," says Jamar Jones, who will portray the playwright, BJJ, along with a few other characters in this production. "I think it's the questions he raises. He says so many things people are too scared to say publicly, and he explores these old toxic notions of race and identity, and he turns it up and says we are going to listen to this."
Jones describes the plot of "An Octoroon" as "a whirlwind" in which BJJ attempts to re-imagine Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama "The Octoroon," a play, like "Appropriate," that deals with the aftermath of a white plantation owner's death. Because BJJ has no white actors for his updated version of the play, he decides to take on the roles himself, in whiteface. The play also makes use of blackface and red-faced minstrelsy.
"We're exploring this very complicated and controversial text through a modern lens," Jones says. "It's a reshaping. We are reframing the ideas of race and identity and blurring the lines between melodrama and realism."
"There are forbidden alliances, stolen letters, forced bondage and so much treachery that it leads to murder, as is the tradition in the classic melodrama," explains Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, director of this production. But she warns that this will not be a typical theatrical experience.
"BBJ uses satire irony and absolute absurdity to illuminate the flaws in how our racial history is constructed and the inadequacies in our memories of that construction," she says. "Audiences should expect that they will be challenged. They will at times be confused as to whether they should laugh, cry or hold their breath. This playwright is fearless and he calls us all to be fearless too."
But this play challenges its actors just as much as it challenges the audience. It's a shared experience exploring the history of race and racism and the boundaries of theatrical convention.
"It requires absolute commitment to the large and iconic racial stereotypes projected and the trauma that those images can ignite," says Pettiford-Wates, and this can be both physically and emotionally demanding for performers.
"It causes us to blast out of our box, to take on these stereotypes and reshape them to this melodramatic style. It stretches you. There's so much exploration," Jones says. He shares in the discomfort audiences will feel. "Come along for the journey," he says, "and don't worry, we will be right there with you."
Pettiford-Wates says she hopes audiences leave the theater exploring those questions of race and identity further.
"I hope it gives them the courage to ask questions, to challenge their own perceptions, not once but as a practice," she says. "I hope they begin to question their own assumptions about race and racism in America and the history that has created it and made room for it to thrive."
Jones says he also hopes the show inspires a new dialogue about whose voices are represented in American theater.
"Because, really, it's a piece about this playwright who has to consistently keep probing himself," Jones says. "I hope this opens up a space to show that these stories can exist in the world and not have to argue why they're important." S
TheatreLab's "An Octoroon" runs from May 17 to June 1 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets cost $35. theatrelabrva.org.