Theater Review: “An Octoroon” — Racist Melodrama, Post-Modern Version
Company One’s actors are top notch and they expertly serve the production’s antiquated style of non-realistic acting.
An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Presented by Company One Theatre at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston, MA through February 27.
By Jess Viator
The provocative opening scene of An Octoroon is nothing if not memorable. While the house lights are up and audience members are settling in, a man peeks his head into the theater and looks around. He gingerly steps into the auditorium and the spectators see that he is wearing only boxer briefs and a hoodie. He takes the stage, and addresses us. He tells us that he is the playwright of An Octoroon, though of course this is actor Brandon Green, who is playing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (referred to in the script as BJJ). He tells us that the script of An Octoroon partly came out of a discussion BJJ had with his therapist. BJJ hilariously reenacts this session for us, deftly switching between his black playwright persona and the personality of a mincing, middle-aged white woman.
The therapist convinces BJJ to feel comfortable in his decision to adapt a popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault, into a contemporary play. The original melodrama is about a slave owner who falls in love with his prize slave, a woman who is an Octoroon, that is, she is one-eighth black. The problem with staging the script, BJJ tells us, is that no white men were willing to play the roles of the slave owners — so he is going to do it. He knocks back an entire bottle of Hennessy, blasts some Kanye (“All Day Nigga”) and applies whiteface.
After BJJ finishes his makeup and dons a blonde wig, The Playwright — Dion Boucicault (played by Brooks Reeves) — stumbles drunkenly onstage. In a consummate display of physical comedy, Reeves gives us a dramatist who is in such an advanced stage of inebriation that he fights slithering out of his chair. The Playwright is belligerent; he berates the audience for not knowing who he is. Eventually, his silent assistant, played by Harsh Gagoomal, props him up in the chair and hands The Playwright some fire engine red face paint. In a moment freighted with with symbolism, the Indian assistant relinquishes his Native American headdress to the white playwright. He then begins to cover his own features with black makeup. Oh yes, they are going there.
We already know that BJJ is an unreliable narrator (he confesses in the middle of his story about his shrink that he doesn’t actually have a therapist). Yet this conceit — that he must play the white men in the melodrama — is a brilliant theatrical solution to a precarious social dilemma: how can you reproduce offensive, 19th century racial stereotypes without exploiting them in some way? Putting a white actor in blackface is no longer acceptable. (It is hard to imagine just how hurtful and demeaning it must be for an African American actor to perform an Uncle Tom caricature.) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ gutsy script successfully subverts racist caricatures by turing his play into an exercise in masking: there’s a black man in whiteface, an Indian man in blackface, and a white man in redface. This satiric approach makes us see how reprehensible and damaging these caricatures are while also commenting on how absurd it is that these facades (and others) still hold such considerable power over us.
BJJ and the Playwright set up this meta- (dare I say Brechtian?) framework for the play; the dramatists go onstage to perform an adaptation of the original sensationalist drama. When we enter the world of the melodrama, the transformation is dazzling: the bare, black curtain is removed and in its place is a rose-tinted version of the antebellum south. The charming scenic design, by Justin and Christopher Swader, is a series of staggered, painted backdrops. These delightfully (and self-consciously) trite backdrops unroll from the ceiling with shocking velocity and crash to floor with a satisfying thump. The lighting is warm and bright, and all of the succeeding scenes are accompanied by the tinkling of an old timey piano.
The melodrama itself is traditional hooey, populated with two-dimensional characters enacting an artificially heightened drama. An idealistic plantation owner named George (played by BJJ) falls in love with his light-skinned slave Zoe (Shawna Michelle James). There is a subplot involving M’Closky, a dastardly plantation owner, also played by Green, who wants to buy George’s debt-plagued plantation so he can have Zoe for himself. In a scheme to further his plan, M’Closky kills a young slave boy named Paul (Harsh Gagoomal) and frames Paul’s best friend, a Native American named Wahnotee (Brooks Reeves), for the heinous murder.
After the opening scene, the astoundingly clever set-up of An Octoroon gives way to conventional 19th century hysterics. Company One’s actors are top notch and they expertly serve the production’s antiquated style of non-realistic acting. Because director Summer Williams’ intention is less about entertaining than exploring some painful truths about race and performance, watching some of these scenes become uncomfortable, at times excessively so. The acting is well done (if not “good” by modern standards) and Williams and her performers are successful in making us examine 19th century racist stereotypes and the tenacity of how these prejudices still shape cultural attitudes.
The problem is that the old-fashioned dramatics are fascinating at first, but they quickly become tedious. For example, Bridgette Hayes’ Dora, a southern belle plantation owner, is nothing more than a one-note parody. Dora is given some of the show’s most overtly racist dialogue; the character mugs and struts and is the dependable butt of the script’s jokes. Hayes is initially engaging as Dora, but my 21st century sensibilities expect character development, so her Dora quickly becomes tiresome. Pete, the Uncle Tom caricature played by Harsh Gagoomal, is instantly grating and he is supposed to be — but after a while his character becomes hard to stomach.
Zoe is the one stock character who is allowed come off in a realistic fashion. Her dialogue is often overwrought — she is firmly stuck in the melodrama, spouting 19th century sentiments — but Shawna Michelle James manages to make Zoe earnest and warm. Even so, her scenes are generally stilted and a bit boring. The fair-skinned but dull Zoe is contrasted with Dido and Minnie, two black women who have escaped the prison bars of the melodrama; they are fully realized, dynamic characters. When speaking to their master, they use the same, exaggerated slave pidgin that the other “black” characters use, but when they speak to each other they smoothly slip into modern black vernacular. And they are hilarious; Obehi Janice as Dido and Elle Borders as Minnie have an impish rapport between them; they effortlessly play off of one another, whether they are snarking on their fellow slaves or telling each other gossipy personal stories. In the end, Dido and Minnie are the characters you end up caring about.
There are two different endings to Boucicault’s, The Octoroon; Jacobs-Jenkins based An Octoroon on the original, 5-act version — the latter version that ends in tragedy, done so (perhaps) to highlight the atrocity of slavery. (Or, as some critics charge, to meet the requirements of money-making melodrama.) In Boucicault’s own words:
In the death of the Octoroon lies the moral and teaching of the whole work. Had this girl been saved, and the drama brought to a happy end, the horrors of her position, irremediable from the very nature of the institution of slavery, would subside into the condition of a temporary annoyance.
English audiences hated the tragic ending and, after considerable resistance, Boucicault rewrote it. He cut the fifth act and made the bloody confrontation between the avenging Wahnotee and the evil M’Closky the final, thrilling event, with George and Zoe appearing happily together at the very end.
I mention this because the ending of An Octoroon seemed similarly (and confusingly) anticlimactic. Until this point, we had been watching a classic melodrama: we are fully expecting either a gratifyingly happy ending or a sad windup. When it came to popular entertainment in that era audiences expected to be left with something conclusive, either the triumph of good or the victory of evil. Instead, Jacobs-Jenkins offers us a third ending, an ambiguous scene where all of the questions raised by the show are left unanswered. The scene gives us Dido and Minnie, after Zoe has taken (from Dido) the poison that she will probably use to do away with herself. The pair discuss how their lives are changing, confess their doubts and fears and their hopes for the future. Instead of delivering a standard moral message designed for 1859, Jacobs-Jenkins gives us a thorny ethical dilemma (shouldn’t the women help the despairing Zoe in some way?) that explores what matters to us now. It is all about how Black Lives Matter.
Jess Viator is an emerging independent theater director, an occasional stage manager, and a lapsed playwright. She has a BA in theater performance, and recently completed a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Dundee in Scotland.