A chat with OCTOROON actor Ryan Woods

Q: An Octoroon is a demanding script, while also funny and entertaining. It examines identity and race in a melodramatic style through a contemporary lens. It has a meta-theatrical play-within-a-play structure. What are the most exciting and challenging aspects of working on this script?

A: An Octoroon is definitely a beast of a play. What excites me about working on such a challenging script is the relevancy it has in regards to the current social and political climate. Through its meta-theatrical structure of a ‘play within a play,’ it examines aspects of racism through the lens of melodrama (an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon) which allows Jacobs-Jenkins to utilize broad racial stereotypes and tropes found in melodrama to shine a light on issues of racism. Examining racism in our society through humor and stereotypes is an effective way to get people to think and reconsider their own views.

What I find the most challenging is figuring out how to juggle portraying three different characters within the same story (which I found early on is no easy feat!). There’s the role of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins himself, who we see struggling with the fact that he’s not just a playwright, but a “black” playwright, and what it means to always have the qualifier of race put upon anything he chooses to do. This is something I think every person of color can relate to. Then we have George (the “protagonist”) and M’Closky (the “villain”) who are larger than life with their broad characterizations, but both highlight the complicated image of a racist. Trying to wrap my head around these three roles and their purpose in delivering the message of the story has been truly humbling.

But all of these things are what make working on this play so exciting! The audience is bombarded by a multitude of stereotypes and tropes, and through the lens of humor and melodrama, they are forced to examine how this adaptation of Boucicault’s play alludes to the many racial and societal problems that we struggle with today (especially in our current political climate). People will find themselves laughing, crying, and feeling immensely uncomfortable (sometimes all at the same time) which is what makes An Octoroon such a powerful piece of theatre. Audience members will leave the theatre reeling from the experience, but more importantly, they will leave reexamining their own beliefs concerning racial identity and politics, and what all of that really means in our “progressive” American society right now.