The opening show of Mixed Blood Theatre’s 40th season, An Octoroon, is a quintessential piece for the company: an in-your-face look at race by a young, up-and-coming playwright that runs without an intermission.
What’s onstage may be familiar for audiences. The spaces around it will have a fresh feel. The exterior of the theater’s Cedar-Riverside home looks the same, but the cramped lobby is gone, replaced by a more spacious facility. New bathrooms have been built on the theater’s second floor, and an elevator and a lift have been added to increase the building’s handicapped accessibility. Even the actors have new amenities, as the dressing rooms have been updated and expanded.
All of this has been in the planning stages for decades, notes Mixed Blood’s founder Jack Reuler. “It’s been a long time coming, but not without a great deal of thought. We had a number of opportunities to move to another location, but board after board affirmed that Cedar Riverside is our home. Instead of saying, 'What do we want?' we reached out to the communities and asked what they need of us,” he says.
The changes in this stage of the renovations focus on serving these different communities. For example, the larger lobby aids the theater’s Radical Hospitality ticketing, where free tickets are available for every performance on a first-come, first-served basis.
Along with dressing rooms, the actors’ pay will increase. “I didn’t think it would be fair to invest in the facility and not the people inside of it,” Reuler says.
The company, featuring several first timers at Mixed Blood, will have a challenge with An Octoroon.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took a 19th-century play as his inspiration. The original is part of the tradition of “tragic mulatto” plays, where a character is ruined by their hidden, mixed-race ancestry. Many of those plays were written to aid the abolitionist cause. An Octoroon isn’t one of those, Reuler says.
Jacobs-Jenkins took the original and spun a narrative perfect for our times. “It’s a play that speaks deeply about race. One of the things we try to do is be a home for artistic people of mixed race. The title character is one-eighth black. The cast is populated with mixed-race actors. They are a body of people who are judged not by who they are but what they are,” Reuler says.
It helps that the playwright, “pulls no punches and he is not afraid to offend,” Reuler says.
Plays like An Octoroon and writers like Jacobs-Jenkins help to keep Mixed Blood — and Reuler — fresh in an ever-changing landscape. “We need to keep pushing the style and form and the way the space is used,” he says.
And while he plans to stay in charge of Mixed Blood for a long time, thought has been put into the next step. “We are vital to the community and add to the quality of life. We want to continue to do that,” he says.
IF YOU GO:
Friday through November 15
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
Free on a first-come, first served basis; reserved tickets $20
For tickets and more information, call 612-338-6131 or visit online.