I am in rehearsal and I am sitting in a chair in the main house of Mixed Blood. The theater is an old firehouse built in the late 19th Century.
There is remodeling and upgrading being done during the rehearsal period. There is another rehearsal happening upstairs. Today, more than the other days of this last week-and-a-half, it smells old in here. I am not smelling paint fumes or the recently cut wood of the set and stage. I am smelling and looking at old wood. It is a scent that is comforting and grounding.
They say that the bell tower on the northeast corner is being restored and a bell will live there again. That is one of the coolest things I have heard all week and the thought excites me. I can see US Bank Stadium on the other side of the freeway to the west. I steal glances at the progress each time I go to the bathroom. It doesn't look completely horrible, but its existence is complicated and problematic.
The subject of this play — race, representation, and portrayal — is complicated and problematic.
An Octoroon is a play about race, but not in the comfortable way that is accepted in the current state of theater. It is not the sort of play that will have people nodding their heads congratulating themselves about How Far We Have Come. It has a wicked sense of humor that is tied to a storied history of laughing through examination of pain and airing of grievances. After laying this show in the laps of audiences night after night, there will be talkbacks. I have never heard of a show or a theater having talkbacks after every performance. This is an exciting idea to me.
The play we are rehearsing is based on a "tragic mulatto" melodrama from the late 19th Century. It is as much an adaptation as it is a sendup. Its point might be lost on some people. The audience may miss some of the points or come up with their own. It may very well escape them that a character that is known for being mischievous and lighthearted is being silent and still, calculating and focused, contemplative and evaluating and for very good reason. It often escapes people — even some "clowns" at times — that a clown is a real person and that real person has real reactions. Sometimes that person has had enough and drops the antics because the audience and the situation need it.
I did not think as a clown and improviser that I would be on this stage in this theater, let alone any such notable stage in the Twin Cities. But one day a friend called an audition post to my attention. My eyes glazed over in disbelief and I signed up for an audition slot. Three months later, I sit here in this old building among new people, having a new experience.
I still have trouble believing this is happening. And yet here I am: in this building with a history, doing a play with a history but mutated by the present, in a medium whose problematic and complicated history we challenge simply by continuing to engage in it. It's been frustrating to pass on project after project, a role here and a role there because of this show, but this feels great. It feels big, like something I should do right now. This is a new adventure.