Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An Octoroon—Artists Rep—SW Portland

Color Us Human

This dark comedy is written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lava Alapai and Dámaso Rodriguez.  It is playing at their space, SW Alder St. and 16th Ave., through October 1st.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.

I won’t go into any elaborate explanations of the history of the play or the origin of The Octoroon, as the playbill goes into that quite extensively and does it very well (by the article authors, Pancho Savery and Eliza Bent).  One of the characters in this story is just such an individual.  Much of the story takes place just before the Civil War in the Old South.  Some films that might give you some perspective on this are the classic musical, “Showboat,” and the drama, “Pinky” about a black person that could pass for white, or Disney’s “Song of the South” (politically incorrect now) as to children’s tales from a black storyteller about tar babies, etc.…well, I think you get the idea.


In this production, a variety of roles with regard to skin colors are explored, as we see use of whiteface, blackface and, in one case, redface (to depict a Native American character).  The old minstrel shows from the play’s original time period actually did use blackface, and I am reminded of early radio with the Amos and Andy cast being voiced by white actors.  This production begins in modern times, as the actors explain the premise of the story-telling, but soon shifts into the 1850’s South.

It is a melodrama in which the characters, much like a soap opera, are pretty obvious as to their intentions and women are pictured as the weaker sex.  George (Joseph Gibson) is a rich white man seeking to have his fortunes grow by buying a plantation and hoping to win the affections of Dora (Kailey Rhodes).  But there is also the evil M’Closky (Gibson, again), the overseer of the plantation, who has his eye on the ladies, too, including, Zoe (Alex Ramirez de Cruz).  (Watch for the scene in which M’Closky and George duel with each other, it’s a hoot).

Of course no one has consulted the field slaves, Grace (Ayanna Berkshire), pregnant with child and simple-mined, Paul (John San Nicolas), as to their feelings, as to being bought and possibly uprooted.  Nor have the gossipy house slaves, Minnie (Andrea Vernae) and Dido (Josie Seid) and the head slave, Pete (Nicolas, again) been consulted.  Other stereotypes that figure into this familiar plot are a drunken red-skin, (Michael Mendelson), a Captain of a steamboat, Ratts (Jimmy Garcia), needing slaves and a greedy, “sunburned” Auctioneer (Mendelson, again).  Believe me, the viewing of this production is a lot more entertaining than the telling of their story.

The main object for me of this play is giving me perspectives as to how the world might look through another’s eyes.  Or, as Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus, says in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you can’t know how another person feels until you get inside their skin and walk around in it for awhile.  Wise words and very appropriate for this production.  Keep in mind, we all have the blood of our ancestors in us and probably all of them are from a mixed heritage at some point.  So then we are truly all brothers and sisters under the skin.

The cast is amazing, especially Gibson who is very articulate in his three diverse roles.  And the costumes (Wanda Walden), especially Dora’s, are quite eye-catching.  Rodriguez and Alapai have done a super job of bringing all the varying elements together and it gives a good indication of the type of thought-provoking productions we are likely to see in their coming Season.

I recommend this production but, be aware, it definitely will raise eyebrows with some people, which is a good thing.  Also, catch the art work inspired by this production as it, too, is quite interesting.  If you do choose to see it, please tell then Dennis sent you.