Welcome to playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ world. You’re just living in it.
Or, is it, welcome to 19th Century playwright Dion Boucicault’s world and Branden Jacobs- Jenkins is living in it?
Or, is it, welcome to the world of a playwright named BJJ, who’s a character in a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that’s a riff on Dion Boucicault’s 19th Century antebellum melodrama, The Octoroon?
If I’m having a hard time answering that question, it’s because the lines blur, get erased, redrawn, and convention is shaken up, flipped over, and then set right (maybe?) in Woolly Mammoth’s dizzying, topsy-turvy, season closer of Mr. Jacobs Jenkins’ meta-theatrical mindbender of a play, An Octoroon.
By way of history, an octoroon is someone who is one-eighth black. Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon premiered in 1859 and ran for years. Among antebellum melodramas, it was second in popularity only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The story, which Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins loosely follows, takes place on the Louisiana plantation of Terrebonne, which George Peyton has inherited from his uncle. George falls in love with his uncle’s illegitimate daughter Zoe, the octoroon. When the plantation must be auctioned off to pay a debt, they learn that Zoe is not free, after all, and must be auctioned off with the other slaves. The evil M’Closky, who is also in love with Zoe, intends to buy her at auction and have her for himself.
Before the houselights go down, a spellbinding Jon Hudson Odom (who does triple duty as BJJ, George, and M’Closky) enters in his underwear to announce, indignantly, that he is a “black playwright” and during a monologue, one of many tour de force moments he has in the show, tells us that we are going to hear a story. As he begins to apply “white face” makeup, he is interrupted by another playwright, Dion Boucicault (James Konicek), and we learn that an acting troupe is going to be performing The Octoroon. However, because they are missing the requisite number of performers, including enough blacks, “negresses” and Indians, they will have to make do, which involves the actors doubling up on roles, Boucicault performing as an Indian in “red face” and his assistant (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) performing in “black face.”
In the telling of the story of the octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins juxtaposes the style of 19th century melodrama with a contemporary vernacular, in a manner which brings us in to the story. For example, he has Zoe (played with a quiet dignity by Kathryn Tkel) and Dora Sunnsyide, a rich Southern belle (played as a comic buffoon by Maggie Wilder) who seeks the affection of George, speak in a melodramatic style. Conversely, functioning almost as a kind of Greek chorus, slaves Dido and Minnie (Erika Rose and Shannon Dorsey, who practically walk away with the show) speak in modern slang that we find instantly relatable In the script, Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a note that neither he nor we know what slaves actually sounded like so it made sense to update their language, recognizing the absence of those voices which have been lost to history.
Director Nataki Garrett has a sure hand in pulling off this complex script, which culminates in a sensational series of coups de théâtre about three fourths of the way through the play that I will not give away, suffice it to say, that one of them hushed the audience in a prolonged moment that was both deeply affecting and extremely uncomfortable. I will not soon forget it.
Set Designer Misha Kachman, Costume Designer Ivania Stack, and Lighting Designer Colin Bills have done an extraordinary job of creating a period play within a contemporary piece with just the right amount of detail and humor. Special mention must also be given to the onstage music played by Wytold and Katie Chambers and composed by Christylez Bacon and Wytold, which underscores almost the entire show.
In discussing the trials and tribulations of being a playwright in the prologue, Odom says he wrote a play about farm animals that talked and a literary manager read it and said, “You’re deconstructing African folk tales aren’t you?” And he said, “No, bitch, I’m just writing a play about fucking farm animals that talk.” I am hesitant to read too much in to An Octoroon, and when you see it, I think you’ll understand why. Some things aren’t meant to be spoonfed and some things aren’t black and white. Some things are just meant to be experienced and considered. Sometimes, a farm animal, is just that.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Spine: ‘An Octoroon,’ ‘The Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver.
Magic Time! ‘An Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg.