Honestly, I am still reeling after seeing Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon last night. I’ve been wandering around the house all morning, eyes glazed over, wheels turning in my head while my family members whisper about what might have happened to me.
I tried explaining it to my husband: “I mean, it was like three plays in one. There is the original 1859 play The Octoroon which is this problematic and dated melodrama about race….there are the (hilarious) slaves the playwright dropped into this period play who speak in 21st century vernacular because, as the playwright says, no one knows how enslaved people spoke – their voices have been lost to history – so why not let them use our words… and there is the playwright playing himself, a 21st century man who is sick of being labeled a “black playwright” just because he’s black.”
I tried explaining it to my daughter: “You see, before the Civil War, people with one black great-grandparent were labelled “Octoroons.” Being an octoroon meant that you could be owned as a slave no matter how light your skin was. People were fascinated by the notion of the “tragic octoroon” and the story became a popular trope in the antebellum era. In 1859, a playwright named Dion Boucicault wrote a wildly popular play called The Octoroon that told the story of an octoroon woman facing slavery and the white man who loved her. Now another playwright, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, decided to look at that play from his own contemporary perspective and use it to explore American attitudes about race and identity.”
Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon (notice the article change) is both an adaptation of Boucicault’s 1859 play and a post-modern examination of it. A sublimely layered work of theater, An Octoroon comes at you like repeated punches to the gut as it explores the contemporary aftershocks of our racist past with a good dose of humor and plenty of Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall. It is hip. It is funny. It is uncomfortable. It is emblematic of where we are right now in talking about race in America.
This production pulsates from start to finish, a dizzying feat accomplished through Nataki Garrett’s inspired direction. From the opening scene, in which BJJ, in his skivvies, downs a bottle of liquor in anticipation of the distasteful act of donning white face, to a surprisingly explosive final scene, Patrick Calhoun’s lighting design, Misha Kachman’s set design and Colin K. Bill’s lighting design propel the action forward.
Jon Hudson Odom tackles with fascinating ease the three diverse roles of BJJ, (the contemporary playwright), George (the genteel plantation owner), and M’Closky (the villain). His introductory monologue as BJJ was spellbinding and his moments onstage as both George and M’Closky awe inspiring. I’ve seen Odom in many roles over the years, including his Helen Hayes nominated portrayal of Belize in Angels in America last season, and he always delivers the goods, but this show calls on him to reach deeper into his acting bag than anything else I’ve seen him in.
Other notable performances include the scene-stealing Shannon Dorsey as the lazy slave with a modern-day tongue Minnie (Dorsey nabbed a Helen Hayes nomination for this performance in the 2016 mounting of the show,) Maggie Wilder as the entitled debutante heiress, and James Konicek in the multiple roles of Playwright Boucicault, Red-faced Indian Wahnotee and (sunburned, white-skinned) slave auctioneer Lafouche.
Ivania Stack’s costumes lend added poignancy to the production. The red satin jacket worn by the lecherous M’Closky set off Jon Hudson Odom’s eerie white face paint and the obscenely large hoop skirts worn by Maggie Wilder contrast with the drab accoutrements of the slaves to serve as a constant reminder of racial hierarchy in antebellum society.
This is a play that pings back and forth between past and present. It doesn’t offer answers but it confronts us with horrific concepts of race that were accepted in the past, asks us to consider what might be problematic with our ideas in the present, and calls on us all to stop identifying ourselves with convenient labels. It is a play that will stay with you long after you leave the theater and it is a play that needs to be seen.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Review: ‘An Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by David Gerson
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Spine: ‘An Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver