Monday, May 19, 2014

An Octoroon: Burning Down the House

"I'm going to say this right now so we can get it over with: I don't know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you."--Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' stage directions for An Octoroon

Taking a Molotov cocktail to blow up melodrama, playwright confessionals, racial stereotypes, black box theater, and comedy, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' brilliant play, An Octoroon, deconstructs nearly everything in its path. And it is a disturbing and hilarious pleasure from start to finish.

BJJ (Chris Myers) is a "quote black playwright unquote" with "low grade depression" whose therapist suggests he adapt Dion Boucicault's play The Octoroon but it falls apart when all the white actors quit and he finds himself considering playing all the parts himself. Dion (Danny Wolohan) makes an appearance and the two playwrights go head to head in a "fuck you"-a-thon until both become players in the adaptation, with BJJ becoming the white plantation owner's nephew and Dion becoming Native American Wahnotee.

Set on a plantation, Terrebonne, George (Myers in white face) is to take over the plantation after his Uncle has passed away but the fate of the plantation is unknown with the evil overseer of the plantation M'Closky (also Myers) looking to get his hands on it. George is torn between his forbidden love for his Uncle's bastard child, Zoe (Amber Gray), an octoroon, and his chance to save the plantation by marrying a rich, local landowner's daughter, Dora (Zoƫ Winters). The house slaves Minnie (Jocelyn Bioh) and Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) offer up their thoughts on these shenanigans and provide much of the comic relief from the melodrama of the "white people." Rounding out the controversial racial politics, are the elderly slave Pete (Ben Horner in black face), young slave boy Paul (also Horner in black face), and Wahnotee the Native American man who is Paul's protector (Wolohan in red face).

But this is not a play about the plot, really. It's about how Jacobs-Jenkins and director Sarah Benson have played with the form. The melodrama tropes and problematic depictions of race get a thorough going over. Shifting the context ever so slightly, through anachronistic language and delivery, the complex racial casting, and the framing device of the contemporary playwright literally wrestling with a playwright of the past, we see everything with a knowing eye. Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson together knock down the walls of the theater (literally) to foreground the artifice and call attention to the form.

I don't want to take away from Jacobs-Jenkins' achievement here by spending too much time comparing it to another work but I could not help but feel An Octoroon achieved so many things that I struggled with in The Scottsboro Boys. Both pieces are using traditionally problematic performance forms to comment on them--for Scottsboro Boys it was a minstrel show, for An Octoroon it’s a race-centric melodrama set in the antebellum South. But Scottsboro does not step far outside its own form to give perspective on it.  For me, as the audience we were trapped in a musical with performers putting on a minstrel show. The Scottsboro Boys made me feel like I was perpetuating stereotypes and made an unwilling co-conspirator in a complicated game of racial oppression because there wasn't sufficient distance for me from the original form.

How you go about using "period" racist performance language becomes critical to how the work will be contextualized. There is no question from the start that An Octoroon is being unwound as it is being put on display. Jacobs-Jenkins doubles-down on racial casting calling for a white actor in red face, a black actor in white face, a Native American or Indian actor in black face. Already the offensive racial stereotypes--noble savage and Stepin Fetchit-esque characters are turned on their heads from the get go. The black actors performing as slaves are given a modern patois and attitude, upending expectations and at times demonstrating true agency. They end up the most grounded characters when the white characters are meant to be more traditional melodrama figures.

Jacobs-Jenkins rightly deconstructs the show structurally at various points--with a giant Brer Rabbit, upbeat/pleasant interstitial music, a modern "sensation" moment, and with the direct address from BJJ. Keeping a contemporary perspective on an archaic form, I felt I could be both part of the problems (white privilege, yo) and free to explore the problems with some critical distance.

But despite all this creative alchemy, the play ends up being entertaining, smart, funny, and biting. The entire cast rises to the complicated occasion and with particular verve from Myers, Bioh, and Blake.  It’s everything a post-modern rendering of a 19th century plantation melodrama should be--seeing its oppressive history, confronting it directly, and making sure we cannot turn our heads away to pretend there are not still problems.

Bravo BJJ.

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