A new staging of ‘An Octoroon’ is challenging how race is portrayed in American theater

Courtesy McLeod9 Creative/Benchmark Theatre
Actor Mykai Eastman on stage during “An Octoroon.”

The Benchmark Theatre is a small professional company in Lakewood whose motto to “keep the conversation going” takes center stage with their current production of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

The 1859 Dion Boucicault play The Octoroon is the source of this modern adaption. Using the original characters, plot, and a large portion of the original dialogue, Jacobs-Jenkins critiques how race is portrayed using Brechtian techniques. Benchmark Executive Director Haley Johnson, and Artistic Director Neil Truglio invited their former professor and Colorado theater maker donnie l. betts to direct. 

betts said he needed a cast willing to take chances to make the show into what it could be.

“So we had to cast people who were open first and foremost. Then on the first day of rehearsal, we had those difficult conversations about race in America, where it stands now,” betts said. “Some people using the phrase now, ‘post-George Floyd,’ racism and all kind of -isms have been with this since the founding of this country.”

He also acknowledges the suburban theater company made a bold choice particularly after COVID shutdowns. 

“I think it's very interesting that a piece like this is now out there. Because most people are trying to do safe things,” betts said. “But I found in the Colorado community, this past season, and also on Broadway, I think people are taking on difficult issues.

Courtesy McLeod9 Creative/Benchmark Theatre
The cast of "An Octoroon" poses for a photo.

“This play in production will cause the audience to either be shocked. They will laugh, they will cry. They will say, ‘What the did I just see?’ But more than anything else, it will have them look at themselves in a different way, hopefully, and where we perceive people of color and how Black playwrights are perceived.”

For betts, the bigger the conversation, the more room there is for change.

“I would like people to be open, come with an open heart, mind, and spirit and see what inclusion truly means.”

An Octoroon runs at the Benchmark Theatre through July 9th.