Branden Jacobs-Jenkins‘s outrageously meta race satire returns
‘An Octoroon’ is a maddeningly clever and provocative piece of metadrama. The lead character is its author, African American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is attempting to restage ‘The Octoroon’, an 1859 play by white Irish playwright Dion Boucicault set in slave-era Louisiana. Except, of course, it’s not that simple.
‘An Octoroon’ is framed on either side by Ken Nwosu’s writer (named in the script as BJJ) as he struggles to come to terms with the source material. This absurdist, boisterous play simultaneously restages, critiques and dismantles the original, taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall and pulverising it.
In ‘The Octoroon’ a young white man, lately returned home from Paris, falls in love with a woman named Zoe (Iola Evans) who is an ‘octoroon’ – a white-passing one-eighth black slave. The plantation is due to be sold to debtors, and the slaves along with it. The young man must decide between marrying a rich white heiress or following his heart. Unfortunately, a dastardly, murderous rival will stop at nothing to have Zoe – including buying her.
Nwosu whites up to play both the white hero and the white villain of the original; two slave girls with a distinctly modern vernacular are charismatically played by two black women (Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole in the most emotionally significant relationship of the play), but an old Uncle Tom-ish slave is played by a man in blackface. Kevin Trainor gets into redface to portray a Native American and, subsequently, a sunburned white man. The play shrieks: look how stupid this colouring up is! But also! Look how much you’re laughing!
Director Ned Bennett’s production – a transfer from the Orange Tree Theatre – rightly plays up the absurdity and sentimentality of the original, bursting spotlights on actors to imitate comedic hard cuts and exploding glitter and bank notes out of the ceiling. The love story is stupid – because every word spoken by Zoe about her sullying black blood carries a queasy awfulness. By the dénouement, the actors are gutsily divesting the ‘The Octoroon’ of its reality, narrating its action as irreverent stage directions despite the lavish stagecraft – because the play is stupid. The appalling reality of slavery rises up through the giggle-a-minute script like bile.
By the second act, some of the techniques used to shock us into wakefulness about exactly what we’re watching – a play about enslaved humans, for god’s sake – feel like a step too far. Nevertheless, ‘An Octoroon’ has its heart and its fighting fists in the right place.