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REVIEW

‘An Octoroon’ offers a challenging, heart-stirring look at the past and present

The award-winning play at the Gamm Theater in Warwick, R.I., pokes at sensibilities, pries at prejudices and pushes at closed gates in a person’s mind.

Jeff Church, left, and Marc Pierre perform in "An Octoroon" at the Gamm Theatre in Warwick, R.I.Cat Cat Laine/Painted Foot

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Obie-award winning play “An Octoroon,” at the Gamm Theatre through Feb. 20, pokes at sensibilities, pries at prejudices and pushes at closed gates in a person’s mind. It can elicit a gasp one moment, a chuckle the next. It is a challenging, heart-stirring piece of theater.

Recast from an antebellum stage hit by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, “An Octoroon” is immediately captivating, as the eight actors take turns busting a move to infectious hip-hop rhythms, strutting and prancing along a runway stage between the two sections of the audience. This is the first clue (but not the last) that this play will use the past to point to the present.

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Jacobs-Jenkins set himself up in the opening scene as BJJ, talking to his therapist about writing this play, to remind the audience to think hard about what they’re watching and not just be caught up in the Sturm und Drang of the plot. After BJJ’s white actors quit, he decides to apply whiteface himself to portray the opposing characters of George and M’Closky.

Marc Pierre takes on these three roles, and he is a tour-de-force as George, the white heir to the plantation, and M’Closky, the white overseer who plots to buy the plantation and the young octoroon. Just watch Pierre spin and stagger as those two characters have a fist fight! He also makes us feel the “good” and the weakness in George, the “evil” and the fear in M’Closky.

Marc Pierre, Alison Russo, Michelle L. Walker and Jason Quinn perform in "An Octoroon." Cat Laine

After BJJ is introduced and turns himself into George, the original playwright, Boucicault, steps on stage, all bravado and Irish drunk rolled into one. Yet this playwright also becomes a Native American man (Wahnotee), complete with redface, tomahawk and war bonnet, and later, a slave auctioneer (Lafouche). Jeff Church inhabits these changes with aplomb and authenticity.

Joe Wilson Jr.’s direction — he’s a member of Trinity Rep’s acting company — is a triumph of balance. He pulls off the delicate trick of combining melodrama, Brechtian interaction with the audience and engaging storytelling. Too often the first two elements can keep audiences at too great a distance to connect with the feelings of the characters as well as their speeches. But Wilson keeps it real.

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That definitely comes across in Shelley Fort’s portrayal of the octoroon whom George falls in love with (and she with him). Fort not only makes us believe in her affection for George but also for her father, the “Master” of the plantation who had signed her “free papers” at birth.

The economic difficulties of the plantation — inheritance, mortgages, a secret letter, the selling of enslaved people — are convoluted and confusing at times. Then add in a murder, a wrong-man-accused, a fire, a scheming Southern belle, runaway enslaved field hands and a doomed duo. But, like any good melodrama, these plot strands converge at the end and make a dreadful sort of sense.

There are spot-on performances by Alison Russo, as that Southern Belle (Dora), Angelique M. C’Dina, as an enslaved young woman (Grace) and Jason Quinn, as two enslaved men — one Paul and one Pete. Quinn, in blackface and exaggerated red lips, is especially skillful at using gestures to reference minstrel performers.

From left to right, Jeff Church, Jackie Davis, Marc Pierre, Angelique M. C'Dina. Back: Shelley Fort, Jason Quinn. Cat Laine/Painted Foot

The two enslaved house hands, Minnie (Michelle L. Walker) and Dido (Jackie Davis), are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s clowns — their conversations reveal details about the main characters through mockery and their own self-satisfied ‘tudes.

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Davis is the “straightwoman” for Walker’s comical quips, and their use of contemporary vernacular adds humor to their serious topics. After all, BJJ had proclaimed about them, “We don’t know how slaves talked.”

We do know that in that pre-Civil War time and place, the “N-word” was a frequent pejorative, and it thus occurs quite often in this play. And, toward the beginning of the play, there is a veritable barrage of F-bombs, with a telling “F-you” morphing into “F-me.”

The play ends with the mysterious Bre’r Rabbit (C’Dina in a rabbit mask), holding a tomahawk in one hand and a judge’s gavel in the other. Her silent appearances throughout the play seem to signal Bre’r Rabbit’s symbolism as the enslaved Africans’ way of cleverly outwitting their white masters. Or is it a subtle warning that current divisiveness could go one way (violently) or the other (in a courtroom)?

AN OCTOROON

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Joe Wilson, Jr. at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, R.I. Performances: Through Feb. 20. Tickets $49-$69. 401-723-4266. gammtheatre.org.