Director Nataki Garrett remembers studying the script of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 antebellum melodrama The Octoroon in college. While working with playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on Neighbors in 2010, she learned he had workshopped an updated version of the play in New York.
“I was hinting, not so subtly, that I wanted to read it really badly,” she says. “It really has to do with Branden’s aesthetic and the way that he writes, and it’s very similar to mine. He’s probably the first writer that I worked with, who, on the page, I felt was writing for me. As I read Neighbors, I said to myself, ‘these are my questions. These are the things I think about at night.’ I knew right away when he was doing the Boucicault play that I wanted to read it.”
It took a couple of years, but eventually Garrett did receive a copy and was invited to direct it at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis last fall.
She’s now getting a second opportunity with the play, as the Obie-winning An Octoroon is being staged at Woolly Mammoth through June 26.
“There are things I’m bringing with me, ideas that worked the last time, but I’m changing some things as I go,” Garrett says. “It’s a completely different cast and different design team and I’m one of those directors who likes to play with everybody at the table, and am interested in how the people I am collaborating with are dealing with some of the isssues of the play, rather than just saying, ‘do this thing like this.’”
Originally born in D.C., Garrett has some family in the area. Growing up, she mixed time between here and the Bay Area. She currently serves as co-artistic director for Blank the Dog Productions in Los Angeles, a company very akin to Woolly, with an emphasis on developing and fostering new work by emerging, adventurous and experimental artists.
The work of Jacobs-Jenkins is known to be provocative. Just as she was with Neighbors, she was drawn to the playwright’s style.
“The Boucicault play is meant to be a melodrama but Branden’s play is really humorous, although I wouldn’t say it was comic. His tendency to bite his thumb at the piece but also in his reverence [for it]. This idea that there’s something deep and compelling to explore in a piece like this is intriguing,” she shares. “It’s always the pieces that make you angry that you really want to take apart and figure out what works. He gives you license to see yourself in these roles.”
An Octoroon follows the tale of a plantation on the brink of foreclosure and a young gentleman who falls for the mixed race daughter of the estate’s owner. Meanwhile, an evil swindler plots to buy the girl for himself, while – as Woolly’s Web site describes it – “the slaves try to keep things drama-free, because everyone else is acting crazy.”
“My college professor described this as a tragic mulatto story in which you have a biracial woman who is not white enough to experience the privilege of whiteness, and you feel for her because if she wasn’t burdened with being born as something other than white, she would be okay,” Garrett says. “Branden’s adaptation is looking at this idea of limiting your birth and being forced in a position where you have to be conscious of your identity or conscious of how people see you, but how do you do that and be an artist at the same time.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
closes June 26, 2016
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The play also is about American history, and Garrett says a challenge of the play is to tell the story so it’s not about “black” history but all of our history.
“That’s probably even more poignant right now because of the political climate,” she says. “We need to unearth these ideas about slavery and oppression and about ownership and the lack of women’s rights. The play involves conversations about race and identity and culture, and you get this friction that’s automatic, because the conversations about those three things cause friction.”
The play pushes at the boundaries, and that’s a storytelling method that the director seeks out in choosing new work.
“I’m really attracted to unconventional ways of exploring the human condition. I’m interested in ideas in plays, literature and the arts that fit the status quo, that cause us to look at something or someone deemed unimportant,” Garrett says. “I like when people come to the theater and see that particular thing that was thrown away, as important. I’m interested in those stories being told and in the way we experience them.”