The paint was still wet late last week as crews worked feverishly to finish construction at Mixed Blood Theatre. The company is kicking off its fall season later than usual for a good reason — a million-dollar renovation of the former firehouse it has called home since 1976.
On Friday, the public finally will get a chance to enjoy the upgraded facilities when Mixed Blood opens “An Octoroon,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ acidic take on a pre-Civil War melodrama about America’s race-based caste system.
“As Branden deconstructs this melodrama about race in America, we reconstruct the theater as a place to welcome all races in America,” said Jack Reuler, founder and artistic director of the venerable company.
The renovation includes an expanded lobby, upgraded (and added) bathrooms, the installation of elevators and other improvements for access. Backstage, actors finally have first-class dressing rooms.
These improvements have been in the offing for more than two decades. Since the first bids were issued, lead architect Ralph Rapson died so his son Toby has completed his vision for the project. Board members have come and gone — and so have contractors — while the theater explored questions about its purpose as well as the needs of the community where it is anchored in Minneapolis’ diverse Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
“It’s been a long time coming because we didn’t want to build something iconic just for its own sake,” said board chair Tabitha Montgomery. “This campaign has been not just about a building, but about being part of the welcoming heart and soul of this community.”
In addition to the work onstage, Mixed Blood has been re-envisioned as a place where people linger, for poetry readings and wedding receptions and other events.
The changes are part of a $2.4 million campaign, of which half has been raised, officials said.
“This is an investment that will enable Mixed Blood to continue to do the great work it has done while it invites the community in for the next 40 years,” said Montgomery.
Mixed Blood’s growing reputation as one of the Twin Cities’ major theaters has been cemented nationally by the daring work it stages, the diversity of its audiences and its much-discussed “Radical Hospitality” program introduced four years ago.
While theatergoers who want to reserve seats in advance can do so for a nominal charge ($20 this season), the balance of tickets are available free of charge during the two hours preceding a show. As a result, Mixed Blood has increased its attendance by an average of more than 10 percent over the past three years, while drawing younger and more diverse audiences.
“Octoroon” is the latest in a series of provocative plays the company has presented in recent seasons, including “Neighbors,” a sendup by Jacobs-Jenkins that took racist stereotypes about watermelons and genitalia to extremes, and the premiere of Katori Hall’s “Pussy Valley,” about workers in a strip club.
Both shows were staged by Nataki Garrett, a fiercely intelligent director who chairs the theater department at California Institute of the Arts. She has become a champion of Jacobs-Jenkins, a young (30) but much-lauded playwright who won an Obie Award for best new play after “Octoroon” made its New York premiere last year.
Garrett was drawn to “Octoroon” partly because of its layered examination of the past. Questioning notions of heritage and of forbidden love in the antebellum South, the play explores the “one-drop rule” that emerged in the 19th century. In essence, anyone with a single African ancestor was defined as black. An octoroon had one-eighth black ancestry, while a mulatto was half-black.
The playwright found inspiration in Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon,” a melodrama that in 19th-century America was surpassed in popularity only by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s the story of a fair-skinned woman who has lived as white but discovers the real truth about her background.
That narrative was very popular in the 19th century and helped cement a raft of stories around stock characters, including “the tragic mulatto.”
“The tragic mulatto is a figure who, by definition, desires to be white and free, and since she’s neither, she wants nothing more than to die,” Garrett said. “She’s a creation that comforts whites on their superiority and denigrates blacks.”
Ironically, these stories were championed by anti-slavery activists, who saw them as a way of winning the sympathy of white audiences.
Play within a play
Garrett is especially keen to see the tragic mulatto story addressed, since variations of that idea continue to animate contemporary works.
“In all of these stories, a drop of black blood means that the tragic mulatto is not white and therefore neither free nor happy,” said Garrett, who invoked the biblical underpinnings that bigots have used to justify oppression. “Because she has the stain of Ham, she’s not anything in a world where she needs to be white and free. In Boucicault’s play, she kills herself. But Branden [Jacobs-Jenkins] indicts these ideas.”
Jacobs-Jenkins deconstructs the drama by creating a play within a play, as a company of modern actors tries to stage Boucicault’s work. Racial pandemonium ensues, with a black guy playing white characters in whiteface, an American Indian character in blackface and a white guy in redface.
It’s about the construction of masks and stereotypes, said Garrett, and what can be taken off versus what is innate.
“All stereotypes have a grain of truth that gets distorted so that when it comes back to you, like an image in the mirror, you recoil from it. That was what Branden was asking in ‘Neighbors.’ In this show, the question is, ‘Who are you when nobody is watching?’ ”
She noted another question still being asked today: “How do you be your own individual self when people project their visions of whatever it is they think onto you?”
With its newly spiffed-up space, Mixed Blood can continue putting on shows that ask similarly pointed questions for another 40 years.