Welcome to Artists Rep and to the kickoff production of our 35th Anniversary Season— Branden Jacobs- Jenkins’ An Octoroon.
This still-young writer (he’s only 32 years old) is quickly becoming one of the most prominent, most produced playwrights in the country. I’ll venture to add that he may be the boldest and most unpredictable playwright to have emerged in my lifetime. Today’s play, An Octoroon, is subversive, controversial and filled with uncomfortable truths delivered through audacious comedy and jarring visual poetry. His work deserves the platform and visibility that Artists Rep can provide as one of Portland’s most prominent arts organizations. This play uses unconventional means to confront our country’s unshakable and undeniable racist heritage.
Through the character of BJJ, Jacobs-Jenkins directly addresses his audience, questions, and wrestles with what it means to be a black artist (especially) in a theatre culture where he is, more often than not, surrounded by white people. He proceeds to put on display, and then subvert, one of 19th Century America’s most popular, crowd-pleasing pieces of entertainment, The Octoroon. A popular “hit” of its time (and still taught in some university modern drama classes) in all its racist and distressing stereotypes, including the manner in which it was traditionally performed: in blackface and redface. I propose that he means for audiences to laugh, and to laugh uncomfortably and involuntarily, at his screamed revelation, skewering and rewriting our shared heritage.
As the play (and the play within the play) ascends into heightened absurdity, ultimately a kind of cathartic sadness remains. And after the curtain call, I hope it can move our audience toward reflection in the way that art is uniquely capable of— via an experience that can be complex and unconscious and perhaps more powerful than a traditional narrative or intellectual examination.
These are incendiary times in Portland. It’s tempting to avoid a production of An Octoroon in favor of less challenging or more comforting material, but opting not to produce the play feels to me like an act of fear and retreat. Doing this play has afforded our community of theatre-makers (staff, board, guest artists, company members) the opportunity to confront our own relationship to the institution of racism and to move together toward creating an inclusive, diverse and equitable culture at Artists Rep. At times the process of discussing our past, our privileges, our biases and our mistakes has been uncomfortable, in the same way that powerful art can make us uncomfortable,but I’ve found that the most difficult conversations have resulted in mutual understanding and unity. It’s a necessary position from which to make theatre together.
On behalf of all of us at Artists Rep, thank you for being a part of the conversation today. We look forward to welcoming you back again soon!
With respect and gratitude,
An Octoroon runs September 3 – October. Visit artistsrep.org for showtimes and tickets.