Gamm's 'The Octoroon' Couldn't Be More Relevant

by Will Demers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday February 7, 2022

Marc Pierre in "An Octoroon"
Marc Pierre in "An Octoroon"  

A 19th Century novel, adapted by an Irish playwright for the American stage, is the subject of a 21st-century adaptation itself. "An Octoroon" is Branden Jacobs Jenkins's dissection of the Antebellum South and contemporary cultural politics. The original play sparked debates in its time, mostly about the abolition of slavery as well as the role of live theater in political matters.

The Gamm Theatre hits the ground running into the new year with this important production: "An Octoroon" couldn't be more relevant as we enter 2022's tentative political and cultural landscape where, unfortunately, we're still debating racial matters. Both old and new playwrights are represented in the physical forms of Marc Pierre as Jacobs Jenkins and Jeff Church as Dion Boucicault, the writer of the 1859 American stage production.

As our narrators, both launch into the story of Terrebonne, a plantation in the Deep South experiencing financial strife after the death of its owner Judge Peyton. His nephew George (also portrayed by Pierre) arrives in an attempt to save the property for his family and discovers Zoe (Shelley Fort), the lovely one-eighth black "octoroon" and immediately falls for her. But things being what they were in days of slavery, an evil man named M'Closky (Pierre again) plots to buy the plantation as well as the lovely Zoe.

The slaves are in turmoil, as well, as they must face the prospect of leaving the plantation and being sold to whomever purchases them. Grace, young and pregnant (Angelique M. C'Dina) and Dido (Jackie Davis) are around the same age but Minnie (Michelle L. Walker) has lived at Terrebonne her whole life and all muse about how their lives will change when they are forced to leave. Enter the spoiled and vain Dora (Alison Russo) who has her own designs on George and Pete/Paul (Jason Quinn) an older and younger slave, respectively.

The collision of each character is vividly portrayed within Jenkins' world which sees the male actors utilizing blackface/whiteface/redface to flesh out the cultural differences. As the show opens, our playwrights muse about how theater has changed in an amusing theoretical exchange. The women all play themselves save for Russo playing one male character. The landscape of the show is incredibly well realized by Director Joe Wilson, Jr. (Trinity Repertory Company) by using Gamm's large, open space in an unusual way in telling the story.

Besides the use of Gamm's large facilities, Wilson has picked an eclectic but talented cast to realize this important work, which is far reaching in its telling of a time when human beings sought others as property. Marc Pierre is one to watch as he navigates between several characters at once, as well as the always entertaining Church's numerous roles. Newcomers to Gamm Davis, C'Dina and Fort are no strangers to local theater at all but shine brightly. Both Quinn and Walker are outstanding, and Russo commands each of her scenes deftly.

Wilson takes the audience on an uncomfortable journey that lays bare the conversations of racial inequality, political division and our broken societal norms. It is a show that must be seen and discussed with family, friends and leadership. This is theater that speaks loudly, if only we could all listen to what it has to say.

"An Octoroon" is running through February 20 at The Gamm Theatre 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick RI 02886. For information or tickets call 401-723-4266 or visit www.gammtheatre.org.