Branden Jacobs-Jenkins thrills audiences with a new take on 19th century melodrama.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein
We open on a blank stage. A black actor in his underclothes addresses us as playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, tells us a story of how his therapist suggested he adapt a Dion Boucicault play, The Octoroon, and when he can't find anyone to play the parts of the white men, that he play them himself. And from there, off we go into the most gripping, hilarious, profound, socially-conscious play New York has seen in a long time. But hey, that's just BJJ for you, right?
An Octoroon does require at least a passing familiarity with the original Boucicault play, about a dashing young man who inherits an estate that is about to foreclose and falls in love with a woman who is 1/8 black, or at least the genre of 19th century American melodrama in general to fully appreciate. It's also a play that appeals heavily to theater nerds, from watching the actors apply blackface (and whiteface, and redface) at the start of the show to the stagehands coming onstage to counterweight the back wall to raise it back up while the two playwrights explain the plot structure of a melodrama to you.
Still, it's also a great show for anyone thinking about the history of race in America, and about how difficult it is to write or talk about race today. From the use of explicit rap music to the everyday slang of the 19th century that today would be considered hate speech, this play challenges any preconceptions you may have about how far we've come since the times of slavery. The Octoroon, after all, is a play about the moral superiority and attractiveness of light-skinned blacks (octoroons, quadroons) over the slaves that work at the plantation, making her so desirable that the new plantation owner falls in love with her—though marrying her, of course, is still against the law.
Jacobs-Jenkins' piece preserves most of the original Boucicault story. Paris-educated artist George Peyton returns to Louisiana after his uncle's death to inherit and run his estate, only to find the plantation on the brink of foreclosure due to his gambling debts. George meets and falls for his uncle's illegitimate daughter Zoe, not realizing that she is 1/8 black, and becomes torn between her and Miss Dora Sunnyside, an heiress whose fortune would save the property and its slaves—including Zoe.
Meanwhile, former overseer of the estate M'Closky has gotten rich off of old Peyton's debts, and sets his sights on owning his old employer's plantation and his slaves, especially the beautiful Zoe. M'Closky murders a young slave boy to steal the letter that would save the Peytons from ruin, leaving the boy's Native American friend to take the blame for his death. But when it looks like George and Zoe have lost everything, will the truth finally come out?
An Octoroon, meanwhile, is the story of a young black playwright recreating the classic melodrama. Featuring the collision of historical and contemporary forms of speech, frequent interruptions from the playwrights and a man-sized rabbit wandering the stage with a basket full of cotton between scenes, this play does deconstruction right, commenting on the original piece while telling a cohesive story all its own. The dialogue between the two playwrights, Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins, mirrors the interplay between past and present social commentary that makes up the heart of the play--and is completely hilarious at the same time.
The play completely accepts the absurdity of Boucicault's original characters, especially the low-status characters such as the house slaves and non-English-speaking "Injun" Wahnotee (Haynes Thigpen) who is played by a white actor in "redface"; in this masquerade of identities, the other two male actors are in whiteface and blackface. Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Armand), meanwhile, have transformed The Octoroon's comic relief characters into the most engaging, relatable and three-dimensional characters in the play, the only people onstage consistently using contemporary African American speech patterns. These two actresses make the troubles of a plantation slave feel no different from those of their modern-day counterparts.
Meanwhile, Amber Gray's Zoe is the most trapped in the original setting of the play, her genuine belief that being 1/8 black is her own personal character failing sometimes proving alienating--and very reflective of the modern day, of course. Each of the three men onstage play three characters each, using face paint, false mustaches and more, a hilarious set-up that emphasizes the thrown-together nature of the performance and the skill of the cast. Particularly impressive is Austin Smith's performance as BJJ, George and M'Closky, impeccably playing the writer's voice, hero and villain all at once and even getting into an extended, extremely violent fight with himself when the tensions between George and M'Closky finally come to a head.
All together, however, An Octoroon is more of an ensemble piece, the men jumping quickly between roles as the cast creates the character of the plantation itself. The addition of a live cello accompanist who remains onstage throughout and the somehow perfect surreal rabbit sequences round out the cast, creating a world that transcends time and still makes perfect sense. And of course, with a nod toward Jacobs-Jenkins' commitment to diversity, how often do you see three black women alone onstage together on the New York stage?
It's hard to point to a moment in An Octoroon that isn't strong, but particular favorites include the playwrights' monologues, Minnie and Dido's plotting to leave the plantation to go live on a boat, the slave auction and the rabbit cleaning up blood from the murder with a Swiffer mop. The entirety of Act Four is also particularly powerful, proving that a writer telling you what he is doing and why doesn't ruin the play for you.
Far from it; as BJJ and Boucicault explain how the trial, lynching, steamboat fire and more would have read to a 19th century audience, we reflect on why those conventions existed and how a writer can evoke that degree of emotion in a far more jaded audience today. And then, of course, he succeeds at doing just that.
It is in these intelligent, clever moments that challenge the limits of what theater can do that An Octoroon shines, rather than the cartoonish characters like Dora and Wahnotee whose humor is short-lived. This play keeps the audience laughing throughout because it surprises us, with its honesty and insight as well as its sheer absurdity. The conclusion of the piece, a mixture of true mourning and more sassy slave commentary, is far more satisfying than a happy ending would have been, and I appreciate Jacobs-Jenkins not letting us go easily.
This production uses the space of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center to great effect, with actors moving in and out of the audience throughout the piece and a subtle but thematically significant black and white set that raises and lowers as necessary. Strobe and colored lights as well as projections are used sparsely, to strong effect, and even if you aren’t sold on the field of cotton balls the actors move through when they first appear, you certainly will be by the end.
An Octoroon features an intriguing mix of the historical and the overtly theatrical, but outside of the playwrights’ commentary does not often consciously reflect on connections between the world of the original play and the modern day. Instead, the cast leaves it to you to figure it out.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is an extraordinary work of theater, and an intelligent next installment for the playwright who can’t not write about race. Fans of Soho Rep and other innovative contemporary theater will be right at home with this production, while newcomers will learn quite a bit in the process. Regardless, this is a play that everyone should see.
An Octoroon plays at Theatre for a New Audience through March 15.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.