By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
At the Royal George Theatre. Till October 14, 2017
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, that debuted in New York’s Soho Rep in 2014, is a play-within-a-play, or, perhaps, three plays in one because in addition to being a reaction to Dion Boucicault’s classic melodrama, The Octoroon (note the subtle difference in titles), that debuted in 1859, it incorporates some of that play’s material after a fulsome prologue in which a black actor (Andre Sills), wearing nothing but briefs and representing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, pours out his anger and pain in a theatre dressing-room in a sort of self-described therapy. BJJ resents being unable to revive Boucicault’s play without resorting to political correctness. As he slathers his face with white makeup, he plays Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz on a ghetto-blaster, multiplying the stereotypes as they play one against the other. Sills performs his monologue with admirable force before he is attended by his “native” dresser (Ryan Cunningham, who is really a First Nations actor) wearing a black T-shirt with the phrase “Merciless Indian Savages” emblazoned on it. BJJ is joined by a drunk stage Boucicault (Patrick McManus) who resents having been forgotten by the theatre world. McManus sounds and acts convincingly Anglo-Irish and drunk.
Eventually, BJJ stages his version of the Boucicault melodrama, while playing a dual role: George Peyton (newly arrived from Europe with the benevolent intention of saving his dead uncle’s Terrebonne Plantation in Louisiana from financial ruin) and M’Closkey (the dastardly racist and sadistic overseer who devises a plot to take over everything, including the slaves, among whom is beautiful Zoe (Vanessa Sears), the octoroon of the title). Among the other slaves represented in the DB version are Dido (Lisa Berry) and Minnie (Kiera Sangster), who make a very entertaining double-act in a rap song. Boucicault’s original play was all about breaking taboos, and BJJ’s play-within-a-play attempts a similar provocation, while following the general contours of DB. Regarding the interracial theme, Zoe falls in love with George, who is pursued by Dora (Diana Donnelly, who is brilliantly funny in her affectations), and who even contemplates marrying wealthy, lusty Dora in order to save the plantation and slaves.
The significant twist to affairs is the racial coding. BJJ plays both hero and villain in white face, while DB (McManus) is in red face as he portrays Wahnotee, a noble, alcoholic “injun” (a double stereotype!) and the real Indigenous actor adopts black face as he plays an ingratiating black youth and an old, shuffling slave-as-household-servant. Sills performs quick changes in the dual roles, helped by facial makeup and costuming that combines white and black like two halves of an uneasy whole. In one quick bravura episode, he even gets to fight with himself.
Boucicault’s original play is truncated in BJJ’s presentation. Indeed, its plot is dramatically foreshortened, as if, it seems, to allow director Peter Hinton to exercise flights of his own imagination, some of which are brilliant but others of which are laboured or undeveloped or even unnecessary. The final act, for instance, is staged brilliantly, as Gillian Gallow’s wooden set is deconstructed or collapsed, although BJJ does not stage either the murder or the trial dramatized by DB. On the negative side, although Hinton introduces a human-scale Brer Rabbit on the fringes of action, he never really develops that creature’s significance as a trickster.
Ultimately, then, an audience’s response to An Octoroon will depend on how well it deals with the disparate tensions in this production: the playwright’s contact with and departure from Boucicault’s original; the friction between classic melodrama and post-modern didacticism; the playing of racial stereotypes one against the other; and Hinton’s embellishments that are not necessarily coherent or clear, as well as Jacobs-Jenkins’s tendency to overwrite. What is undeniable, however, is the real BJJ’s power that flows from a heart that demands our confrontation with incredibly rancid, outrageous black and white history in America. Given current events and realities in the abominable Trump regime, there is urgency about the matter.