Orange Tree Theatre
An Octoroon, Branden Jacob-Jenkins meta-theatrical adaptation of Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, has found an astonishingly rich production by Ned Bennett at Orange Tree Theatre, quite possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
It begins with a provocation. The character BJJ, alone on stage in his underwear, talking about therapy. A skilful pause is left between “who cares about white people… says my therapist”. Then Snoop Dogg’s Step Yo Game Up blares out and BJJ meticulously whites up, ready to play the dual roles of the hero George and the villain M’Closky. Shortly after, the 'Playwright' Dion Boucicault himself appears onstage, drunkenly insults the audience, then ‘reds up’ to play Native American character Wahnotee. By the time the first blacked up actor arrives onstage, the layers of performativity are well embedded.
We then rattle through the story of The Octoroon – in which George falls for the lovely Zoe, who’s also being pursued by the wretched M’Closky, a local landowner who happens to know the secret of Zoe’s one eighth black heritage. The plot is classic melodrama, complete with ‘colourful’ plantation slaves Minnie, Dido and Peter, an intercepted letter, the murder of young slave Paul, the attempted lynching of Wahnotee for said crime, and the eventual downfall of the true culprit M’Closky. Boucicault’s original script is blended with Jacob-Jenkins’ additions, with the cast maximising some of more The Octoroon’s more excessive tropes through their exaggerated acting. And what a cast it is. Ken Nwosu gives an astonishing central performance as BJJ/George/M’Closky, Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole are note perfect as Minnie and Dido, and Alistair Toovey delivers a brilliantly physical and versatile performance as Pete and Paul. There’s not a weak link among them and they commit to every single second onstage.
Towards the end of Act Three, the cast dismantle the set to create a slave market, unhurriedly pulling up the boards of the stage in silence as we watch. Then Act Four begins with a deconstruction of the melodrama form itself, with BJJ and the Playwright explaining how Act Four needs to function, and then going on to describe the attempted lynching scene themselves, with the rest of the cast chipping in from the dress circle. Finally, The Octoroon plot wraps up and the beautiful final scene is of Minnie and Dido talking quietly to each other about how life works.
There are enough layers in the production as a whole to merit an 8000 word review and I’m sure I didn’t spot all of them. There’s the surface layer of any production that interrogates one text through another. Then of a black playwright interrogating a white playwright, through a source material focused on and built around race. Then the staging of blackness and whiteness and the specific materials of that staging, the props and the costumes, the accents and the physicality. And then there’s the layer of An Octoroon’s own relationship with the wider theatrical contexts.
Part of Jacob-Jenkins’ argument is on marking out a place in the predominantly white canon of Western drama and the complex emotions about his plays being automatically categorised as explorations of the African American experience. “I’m not fucking deconstructing any fucking African fucking folktales!” BJJ spits at one point in response to an analysis of his play about farmyard animals - though Bre’er Rabbit does make several cameos in An Octoroon. (These same intricacies are explored from a literary perspective in Percival Everett’s brilliant Erasure, which features a similarly protracted ‘Fuck you’/‘Fuck you’ dialogue to the one that BJJ and Playwright indulge in early on).
These are big meaty topics but An Octoroon is never overly worthy. In fact, it’s extremely funny, mixing razor sharp one liners with OTT physical comedy, and a breakneck confrontation scene between George and M’Closky, with Nwosu hilariously switching between each character. Yet there are moments, particularly in the scenes between Minnie and Dido, where the substance of what we’re laughing at becomes a bit blurred. Salome Wagaine wrote an excellent review expressing her discomfort at how the production plays to a white audience, and cited how “the laughter at the suggestion Minnie is ‘ghetto’ came a little bit too easily”. I did feel a sense in those scenes that, like Dave Chappelle’s worry that white laughter at his show was for stereotypes being reinforced rather than subverted, it’s hard to pinpoint what the laughter is aimed at.
Provoking thoughts like these is quite possibly exactly what Jacob-Jenkins wants. His play is not a comfortable watch, nor should it be. The n word is tossed back and forth. A white man performs a kind of frenzied fancy dance with red face paint on. Pete shucks and jives like a character from a minstrel show. But comfort is all too easily found in the theatre. This play is a gut punch, with a message not to be forgotten.