In the stage directions for An Octoroon, playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins admits that he has no idea what an enslaved person sounds like, “and neither do you.”
The play, which opens Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2018 season this weekend, takes a close look at how America’s view on race has evolved and how it has been dangerously stagnant. CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba selected this show knowing it would prompt important — albeit difficult — discussion.
“We have really tried to surround it with supported programming, understanding that it is that profound a play, that engaging a play and one hopes that it sparks the audience,” Borba said.
On top of talkbacks after every performance, CTC’s first Brown Bag of the season will allow audiences to process the play’s ugly subject matter. “Adaptation and Identity in Octoroon: Adapting an old play in a new way” will be held at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, June 28, in Bratton Theater, with a second Brown Bag on Monday. The play opens Friday and runs through July 8.
CTC conservatory actor Hannah Rose Caton, who plays Zoe, said that upon moving from London to New York City, she noticed a stark difference in America’s racism compared to the way hatred looks in her home country.
“There’s obviously a similarity and it’s still the same disease, but I was just at times quite taken aback at how present I could see it, whether that was prejudice or racism, in the culture of America,” Caton said.
Larry Powell is a guest actor with Chautauqua this season and plays BJJ, a character the playwright modeled and named after himself.
Powell said he appreciates CTC and Chautauqua for recognizing that America’s issues with race are far from settled.
“I applaud Chautauqua for putting it on,” Powell said of An Octoroon. “It says a lot about the community because I don’t believe plays go up without theater and the community in some way subconsciously asking for it.”