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Young Writer's Plays Explore Race, Identity in America


Amber Gray as Zoe, the title character in 'An Octoroon.' (Photo - Pavel Antonov)

Amber Gray as Zoe, the title character in 'An Octoroon.' (Photo - Pavel Antonov)


At 30 years old, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has already written a number of plays and been honored with several awards. His works for the theater look at race and identity in the United States. They have been performed in New York City and around the country. One of his plays, called “An Octoroon,” can now be seen at a theater in Brooklyn.

At the beginning of “An Octoroon,” a man wearing only his underwear appears in the front of the theater. He takes a long look at the crowd, and then speaks.

“Hi, everyone. I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m here to tell you a story.”

This piece of audio comes from a rehearsal, preparation before the show itself. But at a public performance, the comment gets a big laugh. And that is what playwright Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to do. He walks a fine line between making fun of theater traditions and getting people to think about race and identity.

“Because it’s like, well, what makes me black? I mean, I guess it’s that I’m black, but then it’s like, why isn’t Sam Shepard a white playwright? I just feel like it’s qualifying something and I don’t know why or what it’s qualifying exactly. Like, I can understand it as a descriptive term, but I don’t know what it means as, like, a profession.”

Over the past five years, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has established himself in the theater world with three plays on the issue of race in America.

In “Neighbors,” a family of minstrels moves in next to a mixed race family. The minstrels are white, but cover their skin with black make-up. In “Appropriate,” a white family discovers that their dead father belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. That extremist group has pushed for separation of whites from other races.

The third work, “An Octoroon,” is based on a 19th Century play by playwright Dion Boucicault. It tells the story of a young man who is preparing to become the owner of a large farm in the southern United States. He falls in love with a woman who is an octoroon. She is seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. Two hundred years ago, having just one black great-grandparent was enough to identify someone as black. At the time, laws barred such a person from marrying anyone who was white.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins uses large parts of the language from the original play by Boucicault. Let us listen to part of the show.

“That is the dark, fatal mark of Cain – of the blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black. Bright red as the rest may be, that one drop poisons all the rest. Those seven bright drops give me love like yours, hope like yours, ambition like yours, passions hung from life like dewdrops on morning flowers. But the one black drop gives me despair for I’m an unclean thing. I’m an octoroon.”

The actor is speaking to a black actor in white-face, one who is wearing white face paint. Sarah Benson is directing this production of “An Octoroon.” She says that all the parts had to be played by white actors when the play was first produced.

“Of course, the deep irony about the whole situation is there wasn’t a black person in the room. All of the actors on stage were white people in various degrees of black-face.”

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins says when he first read the 19th century play, he was moved by its apparent understanding of those different levels of color. He is not so much adapting, or amending, Boucicault’s script, as taking parts of it -- like a piece of music. So he mixes the language of the first version of the play with modern speech.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins says his modern version of Boucicault’s work has more in common with the earlier script than you might think. The two playwrights are centuries apart and of different races. But their goal is to please theater-goers.

“An audience wants to enjoy itself. And that’s what Boucicault, that’s all he talked about was, like, it’s about an audience wanting to feel something. And they want to feel it, so give it to them! And then, if you get to, like, teach them a lesson or let them know something else, then that’s even better.

And he hopes “An Octoroon” will do just that.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Correspondent Jeff Lunden reported this story from New York. George Grow wrote it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

race - n. one of the major groups that humans can be divided into because of a common physical similarity, such as skin color

theater - n. a place where movies are shown and plays are performed

language n. words and their use; what people speak in a country, nation or group

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