On June 23, 2017, Toba Singer had a chance to sit down with actor Lance Gardner at Berkeley Rep. They talked about the three roles he plays in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” a modern-day adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon.”
Toba Singer: What brought you to “An Octoroon”?
Lance Gardner: I worked with Eric Ting. He directed “Othello” at Cal Shakespeare. We got along well, shared similar art sensibilities, differing enough so that each of us was bringing new and complementary things to the table. I thought we’d make a good team. He asked me to audition. He’s known the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for some time and had been doing a lot of thinking about it. We talked about the tone of the play, and we were discussing our opinions about race in America, and we clicked.
TS: What percentage of people you know is familiar with the term “Octoroon”?
LG: I run in a crowd that’s fairly enlightened, so I’d guess at least fifty percent. I heard two older people talking about the play. One said, “Want to see ‘Octoroon’?” The other said, “What’s that?” [An octoroon is a person who is of one-eighth African ancestry.] Knowing, or not knowing and being curious—both could attract people.
TS: Break down the form and content of a play that melds two distinct periods in history sharing one irrepressible theme.
LG: I think of it in terms of self-awareness. The opening is a prologue. I present myself as BJJ, the playwright. I explain how I came to adapt the 1859 script of “The Octoroon” into this show, “An Octoroon.” The narrative is so rich with fantastic detail about the life of the original playwright, Dion Boucicault, that it’s hard to tell how much is apocryphal or whether I’m telling the truth. Early on you’re off-kilter, but still grasping the meta-theatrical characteristics of play. You are welcomed in, fully engaged.
It then breaks into a nebulous time-travel format, introducing Boucicault and his assistant. Boucicault is from the distant past. Then you meet the Octoroon and dive headfirst into the melodrama itself, with the actual 1859 text interpolated into the script, and a couple acts go by before we break out of that. Within the melodrama structure, Minnie [Afi Bijou] and Dido [Jasmine Bracey] live within time and place, but because their dialogue is contemporary, they also seem to be creatures of the present day, and the resulting cognitive dissonance adds thought-provoking layers of theatricality and self-awareness. Modern language is a choice the playwright makes, and so a stage direction says, “I don’t know how slaves really spoke; neither do you.”
Part of the play endeavors to break down how theater works, by revealing the naked elements of a production at the same time that it pulls you into a world of suspended disbelief by showing you sleights of hand that emerge out of thin air. You see the trick, but you’re still going to be touched and moved by what the trick evokes. It’s as if the playwright is repeatedly saying, “See what I just did there?” If it is done correctly, there’s an earned moment that arrives, and in spite of the world you’ve been living in, you come to this moment, and can’t help being forever changed by it.
TS: Explain who your characters are, and what resources you drew on to construct them.
LG: I play three characters: BJJ, the real playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; George Payton, who is the nephew of the recently deceased plantation owner, and Jacob McClosky, who is the overseer and villain.
It’s set in ante-bellum Louisiana, and a portion is contemporary in scope.
TS: In playing three roles, sometimes with the characters in dialogue with one another, how do you manage to safeguard each character’s dimensions?
LG: I gave myself permission to take the characters and their constructs seriously and not be concerned with the switchbacks. It’s an acting challenge to see how far I can take it and remain sincere.
TS: Even so, the play poses physical, historical, and psychological challenges that go beyond what an actor normally confronts. What about them keeps you awake nights?
LG: I had a revelation the other day. I realized I had been holding back because of how grandiose and unnatural the melodrama proposes itself. I think humility had gotten in the way of pushing the limits of melodrama. To succeed it has to be grand, performative, a wall you to push through to be large, to be ridiculous. Maybe grandiosity is just the externalizing of internal emotions to meet the challenge of playing it large, of embracing its breadth.
TS: You use the term “melodrama” in a way that I suspect differs from how we usually understand it. Can you tell us what melodrama is here?
LG: It’s melodrama in the original sense, to mean drama embellished by musical accompaniment. It incorporates a good deal of text and plot from the original play, THE Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault. That’s the story around which the melodrama is centered, as framed by the playwright BJJ in his monologue and through a variety of theatrical devices.
TS: Is there a thread in this play that you would like to pick up in future roles?
LG: This play deals with the complexity of the history of race in America, and the resulting difficulty of being called upon to carry the torch for examining it through the lens of a black man. So I find interesting the idea that somehow there’s a responsibility to discuss, analyze, pick apart, or just dialogue about it in such a way that it sometimes feels inescapable for a black artist. So certainly, as I did before the play, I will continue to wrestle with how I want to participate in that discussion and how I want to control or place limits on my participation.
The play has reaffirmed what I was already thinking about. When I first read it, I felt that there was at least one other person in the world who was wrestling with or fighting against what I was, and agreeing to do so, via informed choices about what I’ve been asked to do. As an actor, you are asked to accept being the vehicle for someone else’s point of view.
I didn’t want to overfill my plate with this kind of material for full a year.
While this play suggests a point of view it’s not didactic. Well, maybe it is, but I don’t feel that I’m bearing the burden of transmitting someone else’s ideas that are not necessarily in sync with my own. This season I turned down something that did make me feel that burden. I just cannot play a slave as often as I could if I accepted every role of that type that comes my way. It comes down to “Who’s deciding?” Partly for me as an American, and no matter who we are, we share the burden of an awful history, the foundation of a country based in large part on slavery, and its legacy of people reduced to commodities, goods and services. None of us were participants in making this happen, so at some point we must look at what the weight of it means, as it brings us all down.
I am excited to share “An Octoroon” with the people of Berkeley and the Bay Area. It will challenge the sensibilities of theatergoers. It will be interesting to see whether they’re up for that challenge and willing to participate. Audiences are sometimes unwilling to accept the idea that art doesn’t endeavor to present people at their best. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, especially if a play underscores changes, or changes implied by what the play stands for. If you approach it from a place of desiring entertainment, you are going to fail as an audience.