PORT TOWNSEND — A river of color on the backdrop behind her, Gin Hammond invites theater-goers into her life.
As a youngster, she grew all too accustomed to the question:
“What are you?”
In a new play previewing tonight and opening Friday at Key City Public Theatre, Hammond responds.
Titled “Living IncogNegro,” her story is a tale of being Black with light skin, being the daughter of a white mother and a Black father, being “mixed.”
Hammond, a thespian well-known to Port Townsend audiences, wrote the solo show for Key City Public Theatre, where executive artistic director Denise Winter is directing it.
Curtain time at the renovated playhouse, 419 Washington St., is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 11, with tickets at keycitypublictheatre.org.
A pay-what-you-wish preview happens tonight at 7:30; an American Sign Language-interpreted show is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Information is also at 360-385-5278.
“Living IncogNegro” is “very much a conversation with the audience,” Hammond said in an interview. People have been living “incogNegro,” aka passing as white, in this country for centuries, yet “we haven’t been able to mentor each other and be buffers,” she added.
Mixed-race, mestizo/a, multiethnic — we’ve always been here, but others can be careless, even dehumanizing in their talk, Hammond said. When she was a girl growing up in San Diego, strangers would see her darker-skinned brother and tell her they couldn’t possibly be related.
Into this show, Hammond stirs comedic seasoning. She also brings in Carol Channing, Prince, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee by way of vivid drawings that appear on a screen above the stage. Designer Michelle Cesmat supplies those images — and she creates a portrait of Hammond herself during every 80-minute performance.
“It’s one of the most honest pieces of theater that you will see. There’s no pretense,” Winter said.
“It’s an explanation about one woman’s journey through this world … will it resonate with anyone who has ever felt othered? Yes. Are there things in it that anyone can relate to because of what we share as human beings? Yes,” added Winter, also the director of Hammond’s play.
“If you see one piece of theater this decade,” she said, “this is the piece of theater to see.”
An actor since she was a junior high schooler in the 1980s, Hammond has appeared in several Key City productions including “Returning the Bones,” and she served as dialect coach on shows including “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Sea Marks.”
She began writing her one-woman play last year after Winter encouraged her to explore the term incogNegro, which Hammond uses in conversation.
“This is started as a love letter to subsequent generations,” the playwright said, “and there has also been quite a lot for me to think about.”
Audiences will have a chance to engage in talkbacks after performances, Hammond added.
“I hope people become less likely to assume they know all about a person’s background at first glance,” Hammond said, “and if they’ve pigeonholed themselves, I hope they’ll feel more free to spread their wings.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.