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Revisiting Soho Rep’s An Octoroon in Brooklyn

By Helen Shaw
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When An Octoroon opened last year at Soho Rep, it swept all before it. It grabbed spots on best of the year lists; it conquered the Obies; it cemented Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in his position as a star playwright with serious things to say. My delighted review of that production is here, and I have to say—I still agree with 2014 me. But now that Theatre for a New Audience has welcomed Sarah Benson's production onto its stage, fans of that first production may go asking: Can a show with a shock at its center still be a sensation after you know its secrets? Will something made for snug Soho Rep work on a TFANA scale? And does an almost entirely new cast change the magic?

Happily, the transfer makes both parties look swell. TFANA's flexible stage is wonderful in this proscenium configuration, and Mimi Lien's startling set (a wall that falls forward with a gentle whoosh, a hidden slice of swamp) fill it handsomely. If this physical production's extreme charms pale a bit in comparison with the earlier one, it may only be that at the Rep, you were constantly aware that the show was making something out of almost nothing. The new cast is strong too. I particularly loved Mary Wiseman's Southern dumb-belle and Maechi Aharanwa's easily distracted slave (“When I woke up this morning, this is not how I thought my day was gonna go,” she says, on learning she's about to be sold.) And if I miss a few of the old performers—no shade to the current players, but it is a hard thing to lose Danny Wolohan from a cast—this time the playwright's avatar BJJ (Austin Smith) manages the coy bit of metatheatrical misdirection at the beginning with a lighter touch.

An Octoroon is not flawless, but the play's missteps—particularly Jenkins's false beginning, which valorizes a playwright's frustrations with literary managers—are interesting. So even if you saw it before, I urge you to see it again, particularly to wonder at Jenkins's deft hand at writing comic women. I had forgotten, too, how stunningly pretty César Alvarez's pop-folk songs are, particularly the wrenching one that closes the show, songs made all the lovelier by how Matt Tierney's sound design seems to withhold sound in some way. You can hear quietness in the show, the quietness in the audience after we've seen some awful overpowering image or when we all realize, all over again, how we ought to be talking about slavery with every cultural breath. Or at least every other one.

An Octoroon happens to be up at the same time that Naomi Wallace's The Liquid Plain emerges at the Signature, but it’s a coincidence that masks the terrible and usual absence of work about slavery on New York stages. I hope the tide is turning. In recent years we've had Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), a pair of characters in Lucy Thurber's The Insurgents—and yet it doesn't seem like enough. The Signature Theatre Company revives August Wilson plays, and it still doesn't seem like enough. Slavery is one of the widest, darkest stripes in the national soil; it's the evil ore that's running under all our feet. It feels like madness that our stages only mine it occasionally, that we have to wait months and years between playwrights brave enough to dig it up.

Buy tickets to An Octoroon here.

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