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Stellar cast takes the stage in 'An Octoroon' Nov. 8

November 06, 2017

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What happens when you’re an African-American playwright who is directing a production and all your white actors quit because they’re uncomfortable with the material? Well, you play the parts yourself and make the most of what you’ve got.

The Octoroon was a 19-century abolitionist melodrama that was popular before the Civil War, written by Dion Boucicault. The play was an instant hit when it opened at the old Winter Garden Theatre in 1859. An Octoroon is a deconstruction by Brandon Jacob-Jenkins, a prominent African-American playwright – and it will be performed by a stellar cast at the Center for Art & Theatre at Georgia Southern University Nov. 8-15, under the direction of Professor Nicholas Newell.

Jacob-Jenkins, known as BJJ in the play, takes on the roles of both the protagonist and the antagonist in the production.

“The play is a comedy, but it’s a lot about identity and it deals with a lot of interesting issues of race and identity, and it follows the basic plot of a sort of tragedy,” said Newell. “We step outside of the play quite a bit, and you’re aware of the people who are putting it on. And that’s where a lot of the humor comes from.”

Newell says the play isn’t actually meant to be controversial, but it is meant to spark discussion.

“We’re not chasing controversy here at all. It’s actually a quite delightful play. If we can’t talk about these issues, I don’t know who can,” he said, pointing to the diversity of the campus and the theater department.

Newell, who directed She Calls Monsters last year, which won nine national awards at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, notes the level of talent in the cast of An Octoroon.

“We have a lot of alumni involvement in this show. It’s a really terrific cast of some very talented people,” he said.

Newell didn’t want to give much of the plot away.

“We are simultaneously asking you to be involved in the plot of the original melodrama, but also of the people who are putting it on. They’re sort of separate. Sometimes they’re the same. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from,” he said.

Newell said they are providing some new twists. In the original production, there was a cellist on stage. A classic melodrama has music between acts, and in this instance, Newell says they’re giving it bit of a rock and roll edge.

“What we’ve decided to do is take some songs that were not originally written as part of the play and we are going to be performing them in between each of these short acts. So there’s definitely an added musical component,” he said, adding that there will be a guitarist, a bassist and a singer on stage.

Newell was excited about the work the actors are doing in the play.

“You get to see a lot of really amazing transitions. There are a lot of really great transformations. There’s a lot of really amazing physical work that these actors are doing,” he said.

Newell says that in the spirit of the discussion that is sparked because of the play’s subject matter, on opening night, a panel discussion will be featured that will include Woodie King Jr., with the Federal Theatre Project in New York City, and local theater legend Mical Whitaker.

King is the founder of the New Federal Theatre and the National Black Touring Circuit in New York City, and has produced shows on and off Broadway. In addition to his directing and producing credits, he has also written for numerous magazines, including Black World, Variety and The Tulane Drama Review, as well as authoring a number of books. 

Whitaker is a retired theatre professor emeritus, stage director, actor and writer. He returned to Georgia in 1981 following a 20-year career in New York, where he developed his own theater company, The East River Player, and produced a nationally syndicated radio show. He directed and/or acted in more than 100 productions during his tenure at Georgia Southern University.

Newell says the audience may be a tad bit uncomfortable with some of the things the play asks you to laugh at.

“We have a very complicated and sometimes ugly history, and some people might want to just ignore that. But in bringing things out into the open, we can sort of start to pull some of the poison out and start to heal,” he said.

An Octoroon will be performed at the Center for Art & Theatre at GSU, and the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. each night. There will be a Sunday afternoon matinee at 2 p.m. and no show on Monday. Tickets are $12 general admission and $6 for students, and are available at


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