An Octoroon

by Loren Noveck · March 1, 2015

an octoroon

Haynes Thigpen, Austin Smith, Amber Gray | Gerry Goodstein

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, adapted from a nineteenth-century melodrama, is big and bold and intricate and wildly ambitious. It’s got a keen sense of theatricality, as well as being smart and incisive and funny on a slew of topics: the state and history of American theater, race, gender, how we engage with American history, the idea of cultural authenticity, how we access emotion in a media-saturated world. And even when operating at such a level of reflexivity and self-consciousness that it could, sometimes even by all rights should feel over-intellectual and theorized to death, scholarly rather than theatrical--it all works on an emotional level as well. It’s messy and complex and thought-provoking and both Jacobs-Jenkins and director Sarah Benson throw so many ideas, images, and layers at the wall that even when all of them don’t stick, the misses are almost as intriguing as the hits. 

The original Octoroon was an insanely popular melodrama by impresario Dion Boucicault--second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its popularity, and kept running by road companies for years. The play just predates the Civil War, and its tale of a Louisiana plantation threatened by financial ruin, and the love between the plantation’s white heir and his uncle’s illegitimate daughter, the titular “octoroon,” and a murder shockingly solved by photographic evidence, would seem at a glance to be instantly dated, something that could barely have outlived the war, let alone the turn of the twenty-first century. 

On the page, Jacobs-Jenkins retells Boucicault’s story fairly faithfully, for the most part; a few tertiary characters have been streamlined out, but the familiar mechanics of the nineteenth-century melodrama remain in all their sensationalism and creakiness: a purloined letter that could save a family from financial ruin; a doomed love (doomed, here, because Zoe, the heroine and illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner by one of his slaves, has “one drop in eight” of black blood); a murder (of the young slave boy Paul); a spectacle (a steamboat explosion); and a black-hearted villain (M’Closkey, the greedy overseer who’s looking to buy the plantation, and Zoe, at the bankruptcy auction). 

But alongside that, we get a frame story: BJJ, a young African-American playwright, is advised by his therapist to work on a project that reminds him why he loves theater. His fascination with The Octoroon sets him off, but when all his white actors quit because the play is too “melodramatic,” he puts on whiteface makeup and steps into the roles himself (of the play’s hero, George, and its villain, M’Closkey). Meanwhile, the white Playwright (Boucicault, aka “Theater Jaysus,” if he says so himself), drunk, wanders in, lamenting the fact that the Winter Garden (where The Octoroon was originally produced, in 1859) burned down, and puts on redface makeup (to play Wahnotee, the boy Paul’s Indian friend who winds up accused of his murder). And the Playwright’s Assistant (according to the script, “played by a Native American actor, a mixed-race actor, a South Asian actor, or an actor who can pass as Native American”) puts on blackface to play both male slave characters: the boy Paul, and the older Peter). And at intervals throughout the piece, BJJ and the Playwright step back out of The Octooroon and into the theater, engaging with the audience directly. 

For the women, language is their stage makeup; instead of the layers of cognitive dissonance created by the race-switching for the men, we get highly coded and codified language: from Dora, the heiress to the next-door plantation and the girl George should marry (the most purely comic character in the piece, she’s deftly played by Mary Wiseman), hyperbolic and period-appropriate Southern Belle and comically predatory female; from the young house slaves Minnie and Dido and the field slave Grace, a modern, self-help-tinged idiom you might expect to see in a sitcom aimed at an “urban” audience. Only Zoe, the pure and noble octoroon, speaks in Boucicault’s words. And where in Boucicault’s original, the slave characters are pure plot functions, operating almost more as scenery than people, here Dido and Minnie (the excellent Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa) form the emotional center of the play: pawns to the plot, still, but that’s tragedy rather than necessity. 

In all of it, there’s a constant tension between the sentimentality of the melodrama--a piece originally seen as politically daring and progressive in its sympathy for its slave characters--its (to a modern audience) disturbingly casual racism and depiction of slave life, and the modern racial tropes the piece also navigates. Nothing is uncritically played straight, though all of it is acted with conviction--in fact, the piece’s mastery of tone, its ability to walk a needle-thin line between sincerity and blistering irony, between slapstick and satire, between standing outside the narrative mechanics of melodrama and embracing them, is perhaps its greatest strength. (Well, there’s also a knife fight between George and M’Closkey, both played by Austin Smith, that’s one of the best pieces of fight choreography I’ve ever seen--kudos to J. David Brimmer.) There’s one sequence late in the play--what would be Boucicault’s Act 4: the two playwright characters--Austin Smith as BJJ and Haynes Thigpen as Boucicault--simultaneously perform and narrate us through a section of The Octoroon that’s impractical to stage for a number of reasons. It cuts in and out of the two modes at the switch of a line, simultaneously deconstructing the source text, enacting it, analyzing the state of American theater, and challenging the audience. On paper, it could all go horribly wrong, but Smith and Thigpen give it such dramatic tension that it flies. 

Oh, and then there’s Brer Rabbit--a human-sized rabbit figure who sneaks through scenes, witness, dash of the surreal, and a constant callback to an observation BJJ makes in the prologue that even when he writes about farm animals, his work, inextricably linked to his race, is seen as adapting African folktales. 

Matching Jacobs-Jenkins’s surety of tone, director Sarah Benson structures the beats and silences with a confidence of timing: not afraid to let a pause linger, or a moment go on just enough for discomfort.  

The piece ends with a delicate song, sung in the dark by the entire cast at the end--delicate until you listen to the words, that is. The chorus asks, when you burn something down without a trace, what do you put in its place? This question could refer, in the context of this play, to many things: to the American theater (where this African-American playwright is backed into the corner of carrying the burden of his race no matter whether he’s writing about rabbits), to American culture at large (where genuine emotion is harder and harder to come by through the thicket of media saturation in which we all reside), to the simple progress narrative of American history; and on ad infinitum. Affecting, unsettling, and thought-provoking all at once: just like the piece.






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