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What is a black play? Who is a black playwright? These are just some of the difficult questions posed by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s darkly (no pun intended) comedic revision of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama about a forbidden love between a Southern plantation-owner and his half-cousin, an octoroon.
First, some history—both theater and from the black experience, both of which are required to enjoy this play as fully as possible. Race-based slavery in this country had its own twisted rationale, rooted in a willful misinterpretation of the Bible, among other canards. Even a drop of black blood, deeming one cursed as specially marked out for slavery, could taint the whole. Someone with even just one black great-grandparent — one of eight — whether or not white enough to ‘pass’ (an obsession for a later generation, as seen in Show Boat) would be considered an ‘octoroon’ in the evil, pseudo-scientific lingo of American slavery and doomed to be property. Thus the titular octoroon in this play: Zoe.
There is also the theatrical past, as explored by Jacobs-Jenkins. Forbidden love is one of the oldest tropes in the Western theater, whether women in the grips of the ecstasies of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and theater, Romeo and Juliet, or even Show Boat, where the love between a light-skinned woman and a white actor in the troupe results in their banishment from the show and the boat.
Combining Boucicault’s original text, modern vernacular, the “N” word. slapstick, black-face, white-face and even red-face, Jacobs-Jenkins creates a meta-melodrama that is at once a lesson and critique of theater, history and race. The laughs generated by the talented cast make a sly but pointed commentary on racism and its audience’s own participation in the legacy of that centuries-long crime today.
The Irish playwright examined race in a time when the world was gripped by the ongoing struggle to prohibit slavery based on the color of a person’s skin, but before the Civil War that tore apart the preeminent home of this abomination: the United States. Savvy Boucicault even had two endings—a European one that consummated the forbidden love between white and black and an American one that steered clear of miscegenation. This theater genius also apparently invented the matinee, according to Jacobs-Jenkins’ update, which turns both himself and Boucicault into players in a drama surrounding the melodrama.
Austin Smith stands out as the black playwright, and also tackles the roles of hero and villain in the melodrama, which means he must fight himself in a brilliantly choreographed dance. It is a literal tour de force. The charming Ian Lassiter also shines as Boucicault’s assistant, a black-face caricature of a slave foreman and a beloved young black slave boy, even if your enjoyment of all of the melodramatic roles is called into question.
Jacobs-Jenkins and the talented director Sarah Benson deploy simple but stunning stagecraft to transform the bare black stage of the present into a white box covered in cotton balls (though the fictional plantation Terrebonne apparently works in ‘cane, as in sugarcane) where the melodrama can play out. Two slave women, Minnie and Dido, wonderfully embodied by Maechi Aharanawa and Pascale Armand, almost steal the show as they discuss the doings of the play and the plantation in modern slang and intonations. A single, masterful cellist, Lester St. Louis, provides emotion-heightening accompaniment, and can’t help but laugh at the talented cast. The whole theater is used throughout, helping to implicate the audience fully in the doings on stage. Liberal use of forbidden words never fail to get a gasp or a laugh, as does a man with a giant rabbits head, perhaps Br’er Rabbit, who serves as comic relief and cover for costume changes.
Br’er Rabbit is a trickster and one of the tricks this time is that he is played here by the playwright himself, Jacobs-Jenkins. The rabbit appears to make light of some of the more disturbing scenes—such as the murder of a slave child. For the rabbit, the boy’s blood is merely an annoyance to be cleaned up.
Dirty blood is the inevitable theme of a twisted tale about an octoroon. Even the white baby doll prop has black face, one of the few slaves, along with her pregnant-again mother, left to be auctioned off to save the good earth of Terrebonne after a mass escape. But as one attendee of the auction observes: “This is crazy. I want somebody [a slave] smart enough to run.” The brutal logic of slavery in a quip, and there are quips aplenty. Without spoiling it, the climax of the show is explosive, forging a connection between audience, cast and theater in a way that cannot be replicated in any other medium.
The show gets off to a slow start, succumbing to throat-clearing about race, history and theatrical devices, a back-story problem perhaps more simply solved by showing a black actor playing a black playwright dabbing skin-lightening makeup on his face. There is too much telling when showing will do and even all Jacobs-Jenkins tricks cannot cover completely the archaic langours of Boucicault’s original. Then again, it is hard to tell what is from Boucicault’s orginal, since he is nearly entirely forgotten, and what is new.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at An Octoroon it is that all the new comedy and layers of reference—to theater history, the legacy of race and how race-based thinking still poisons the present even as it is diluted by time—serve to excuse the audience ( not even one-eighth black on the night I attend) from really grappling with how this taint still lives in each and every American. Melodrama may have been, well, overly melodramatic but as the excellent Allister observes: “the point was to make you feel something.”
There are no tears for Zoe or the struggles of the black playwright who has written a play in which a black man in white face is lynched by a white man in red face and his cries for help are easy to ignore thanks to the conventions of theater. Like the audience at a horrific lynching, enjoyment of the spectacle may be foremost in this play, with little pause for emotional reckoning with the plight of these particular people.
An octoroon is an unclean thing, in the words of both playwrights. Even once you have seen An Octoroon have you really seen her? The point is to make you feel something but what? There are no easy answers to any of these questions but to grapple with them and to be wildly entertained, see this play. I, for one, felt alive, exhilarated and entertained, much as the audience to a lynching looks in shocking photographs from that all too recent era. That is the strange fruit brought to light in this powerful theatrical examination of our bloody, horrific history.
Ann Daniels is the nom de plume for a NYC-based actress and writer. A graduate of UC Berkeley and Tisch School of the Arts, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her journalist husband.