The Octoroon, Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation, was a sensation of the American stage in the mid-19th century, but you’re not likely to see it revived now. Boucicault was progressive in his way and for his time (though he resisted being labeled an abolitionist), but his characterizations of the plantation’s slaves, a “savage” Native American and the mixed-race title character—all of whom were originally played by white actors—make the play seemingly unstageable today. (In my college theater-history courses, we studied The Octoroon alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin as relics of their time.)
It’s in part the irreconcilability of Boucicault’s worldview with our own that makes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s excavation-by-adaptation An Octoroon, now receiving its Chicago premiere in a blistering Definition Theatre Company production directed by Chuck Smith, so thrilling. The other part, of course, is Jacobs-Jenkins’s brilliance and daring. Alternating between metatheatrical commentary on Boucicault’s text and reverent revelation of the truths it still contains, Jacobs-Jenkins recasts this relic as incisive commentary on all the ways we still fail to reckon with race in America.
Then again, the modern playwright might bristle at that description—as does An Octoroon’s first speaking character, named in our programs as “BJJ,” who introduces himself to the audience as a black playwright before chafing at the implications of that label. Theaters’ literary managers, “idiot critics” and his own therapist, he tells us, read everything he writes as a treatise on race whether he intends it that way or not.
At his therapist’s suggestion, BJJ is considering trying to adapt Boucicault’s The Octoroon. Lo and behold, the primary source’s playwright then shows up onstage as well, none too happy about his diminished standing in theatrical history. Soon, both writers have cast themselves in The Octoroon within An Octoroon—BJJ making himself up in whiteface to play both noble plantation master George and the villainous M’Closky, and Boucicault donning redface to play the “Indian.”
It’s nearly as impossible to describe the pinballing range of tones that follows in Jacobs-Jenkins’s script as it is to convey how well Definition’s production hits them, mixing gleefully anachronistic mockery of antebellum attitudes (and theatrical conventions) with straight-played pathos that reminds us those attitudes were all too real and are by no means extinct.
I can’t directly compare Definition’s work to An Octoroon’s previous productions in New York, Washington, D.C., London and elsewhere, but I get the impression Smith has dialed down the overt absurdity to good effect. Among the cast, the hardworking Breon Arzell delivers the most compelling performance(s) I’ve yet seen from him pulling triple duty as BJJ, George and M’Closky, while Chicago newcomer Ariel Richardson is devastating as George’s forbidden love Zoe, the “octoroon,” among whose blood “one black drop poisons the rest.” To see her shift seamlessly between sending up her character’s overwrought virtue and playing the very real stakes of Zoe’s dilemma is impressive to say the least.
And it would be a crime not to mention Maya Vinice Prentiss and Sydney Charles’s sly, uproarious tag-team as the house servants Dido and Minnie, present but practically personality-free in Boucicault’s text. In Jacobs-Jenkins’s version, Minnie and Dido are (sort of) the voices of modernity in the antebellum swamp—but even they don’t get to escape the realities of the imaginary construct of race in this challenging, clever, diabolically funny and heartbreaking work.
Definition Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Chuck Smith. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.