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Racial anxieties subverted at Berkeley Rep

Don’t worry if you don’t know about Dion Boucicault or his 1859 play “The Octoroon.” In riffing on it in “An Octoroon,” an off-Broadway hit now in a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins writes that “no one cares about him anymore.”

In college theater classes, the script is trotted out as an example of the way 19th century melodramas gave white audiences a relatively safe way to feel and then release their racial anxieties — while also committing the subversive act of getting them to sympathize with a protagonist who’s one-eighth black.

The play might be a footnote now, but our racial anxieties have far from gone away. With “An Octoroon,” which is directed by Eric Ting, Jacobs-Jenkins isn’t interested in giving us a safe release valve. It’s all about the subversion.

— Lily Janiak

“An Octoroon”: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 23-24; 7 p.m. Sunday, June 25. Through July 23. $29-$97, subject to change. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949.

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