By Brian Pope
Conventional wisdom dictates that you should never meet your idols. You run the risk of said idols failing to meet the stratospheric expectations you set for their personalities and abilities.
For me, that would mean meeting TV mogul Shonda Rhimes only to find out that she types all of her scripts in Comic Sans.
For Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, there’s no need to speculate about what a meeting with his idol would look like. After all, it would be impossible for this meeting to occur because Irish actor/playwright Dion Boucicault died nearly 130 years ago. It also might be an overstatement to say that Boucicault is Jacobs-Jenkins’ idol, but we hear in the opening moments of An Octoroon how Boucicault’s work caught Jacob-Jenkins’s spirit.
At the behest of his therapist, Jacobs-Jenkins sets out to engage with Boucicault’s problematic opus The Octoroon in seemingly the only way a black playwright can: write a version of himself into the play (called “BJJ”) who, side-by-side with a version of Boucicault (simply called “Playwright”), acts out several roles and hashes out the story’s dramaturgical and historical legacy.
The fact that BJJ and Playwright do this in whiteface and redface, respectively, is where it becomes clear how incredibly unconventional, yet exceedingly wise, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing truly is.
If free adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery, he has done well by Boucicault. With their impressively precise and daring walk across the tonal tightrope that is the Obie-winning An Octoroon, Kinetic Theatre Company has also done very well by Jacobs-Jenkins.
Deconstruction is the name of the game here. As BJJ, Ananias J. Dixon enters at the top of the show in his underwear. It’s a physical representation of the stark, raw performance to come. He tells us about the run-ins with his therapist and with The Octoroon.
Lowercase “o” octoroon is a word used in the 19th century to describe a person of one-eighth African descent. Uppercase “o” The Octoroon is a play that captivated audiences around the country in and out of the theater. It utilized the tricks and tropes of melodrama, namely exaggerated gestures and heightened stakes meant to stir the audience’s emotions, to help spark the abolitionist movement.
The problem is that the titular character in The Octoroon, a slave named Zoe who falls for a white man named George Payton, along with the other black characters in the show were portrayed by white actors in blackface. It was a common practice in the time of the play’s premiere that, while unfortunately still rearing its ugly head today, does not age well.
Orbiting the forbidden love plot featuring George and Zoe are the misplaced feelings from a more appropriate suitor named Dora, and the murderous and greed-driven machinations of Jacob McClosky.
Aided by Kim Brown’s expressive costumes, Dixon thrillingly distills both McClosky’s moustache-twirling villainy and Payton’s cherubic nature, sometimes simultaneously. A climactic auction scene sees the two characters fight one another and sees Dixon flawlessly execute Michael Petyak’s choreography.
Dixon carries the show when he holds the brush up to face to paint it white. He does so to become a white man, but to me, he looked like a ghost. His spellbinding presence on stage is haunting and otherworldly.
As the script’s disgusting racial epithets fly across the stage and the laughter echoes in the audience, it sometimes felt as if we were back in 1859 when the original play premiered. Although it might have taken me until Act II to become 100% comfortable with the play’s sharp edge, director Andrew Paul wields it to tremendous effect. His seamless work allows for certain moments to poke you when they’re meant to, and others to gut you when you least expect. Johnmichael Bohach’s ornate and abstract set is the perfect canvas for Paul’s grotesquely hilarious Brechtian portrait of Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins’ works.
In addition to Dixon, Paul has assembled a remarkable ensemble that genuinely act, move, and think as one.
Martin Giles joins Dixon in his underwear as Playwright before donning redface and a stereotypical Native American outfit. It’s as jarring as the play’s numerous non-PC elements, but Giles actually does the unspeakable when he manages to find surprising subtlety in each of his three roles, especially in Wahnotee, who nearly pays the ultimate price for making a gruesome discovery.
Melessie Clark and Jenny Malarkey’s perfectly calibrated performances as Minnie and Dora, respectively, are shrewdly shaded with some contemporary colors and bring some much needed, non-cringe-worthy comedic relief to the evening’s proceedings.
At the end of the night, the question arises: Does An Octoroon solve the problems of The Octoroon? It’s a trick question. Unlike a certain 2019 Best Picture nominee set primarily in a car, An Octoroon does not set out to rewrite history or tie a bow on these complex debates about race and representation in America.
An Octoroon is meant to make you feel something. It’s meant to inspire many questions, none of which have easy answers. It’s kind of like what The Octoroon did all those years ago.
Just think how much better this play would be if Branden Jacobs-Jenkins actually did get to sit down with Dion Boucicault and pick his brain.
An Octoroon plays at the New Hazlett Theater through February 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photo Credit: Rocky Raco.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.
Categories: Archived Reviews