By Tulis McCall
Now this is more like it!!! I have done a 180 Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. A few weeks ago on I attended a performance his Appropriate at Signature Theatre recently and came away disappointed in everything starting with the writing. Jacobs-Jenkins had taken on an ambitious subject, that of a white family confronted with a connection to black lynches in the South, but I found the play sophomoric and melodramatic.
With An Octoroon, however, Jacobs-Jenkins has taken another view on race in America, and instead of tip toeing around the melodramatic landscape, he has plunged in to the bull’s eye and pulled us along with him. The result is spectacular.
BJJ (Chris Myers) – played by an actual playwright, African-American actor, or black actor – stripped down to his skivvies, is here to tell us a story. He is a black playwright (Jacobs-Jenkins) who is immersed in the meaning of that phrase. Everyone thinks it means “something”, therefore he is living in a predetermined box not of his own making. Because of his low grade depression, he has been challenged by his white therapist to adapt An Octoroon, a melodrama by Dion Boucicault, a 19th century playwright. In doing so BJJ can deal with his subconscious anger at white people and reconnect with this “thing” that he does, namely the theatre. When white folks refuse to play the necessary racist male characters, BJJ must – again at his therapist’s suggestion – play them all. Set up for premise of play – check.
Once the whiteface is applied, and this is only the beginning of our discomfort, BJJ is joined by The Playwright, Dion Boucicault (Danny Wolohan) who bemoans his lowered status in the world: There was a time when I ran this town! I was like the – I was like -The King of the Theatre.
But once he has his hissy fit he joins in the story telling.
The “story” takes place on the Plantation Terrebone in Louisianna. Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blak) and Mini (Jocelyn Bioh) are doing their house chores and carrying on using contemporary language. This is at first funny, then slowly becomes unsettling as the language they use brings them close to where we live in this century. They speak of the old owners who are dead or dying and of Master George, the new owner. He don’t seem to know what he doin’ just yet but he’ll figure it out. Having slaves can’t be that hard. Owee. These scenes repeat throughout and are Jacobs-Jenkins at his best – messing with us before we realize it.
Because this is melodrama there are the usual suspects: the wholesome female in trouble – Zoe (Amber Gray) who is also the title character. Zoe breaks hearts wherever she treads, but because she is an octoroon, one eighth black, she is not a suitable woman for a white man. The well-meaning wholesome leading man, George as well as the despicable M’Closky (both played by Chris Myers) are pitted against one another. There are dastardly deeds, deception, a slave auction, and death a plenty.
Jacobs-Jenkins ties this all together with two Epilogues: The first is Act Four where he has earned the right to drop the forth wall and include us in on the doings. JJ and Boucicault explain what is about to happen. You basically sort of give your audience the moral, then you overwhelm them with fake destruction. You push everything to the limit and create a sensation. Fire, explosion, death – all told in rapid narration by the cast with Scene Five back at the slave quarters.
This is a sad tale told way out of the box with humor, grace, and a raised fist in a velvet glove. Jacobs-Jenkins is a smart writer, and in this production he is joined by an equally smart director, Sarah Benson, who has a visceral understanding of “less is more.” He is also blessed with a fierce production team and extraordinary actors (even the rabbit). The simplicity of the overall design and execution is brilliant.
As we are bid farewell, lest we swan out into the night thinking An Octoroon was clever but in no way relevant to we who are as enlightened New Yorkers in the 21st century, the composer César Alvarez gives the cast a song, delivered in the dark, that sends us off with a musical Nota benne on racism:
When you Burn it down, It’s disappearing
When you tear it down, there is a clearing
When you burn it down, it leaves no trace
What do you put there in its place
What do you put there in its place
Put that in your pipe. This is a production that takes no prisoners. Bravo.
An Octoroon – By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; directed by Sarah Benson; songs, score and musical direction by César Alvarez
WITH: Shyko Amos (Grace), Jocelyn Bioh (Minnie), Marsha Stephanie Blake (Dido), Amber Gray (Zoe), Ben Horner (Assistant/Pete/Paul), Chris Myers (BJJ/George/M’Closky), Zoë Winters (Dora) and Danny Wolohan (Playwright/Wahnotee/LaFouche) Lester St. Louis, Cellist.
Choreography by David Neumann; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Wade Laboissonniere; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Matt Tierney; wig and makeup design by Cookie Jordan; projections by Jeff Sugg; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Amanda Spooner; produced by Elizabeth Moreau; production manager, Joshua Kohler. Presented by Soho Rep, Ms. Benson, artistic director; Cynthia Flowers; executive director; in association with John Adrian Selzer. At Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa, 866-811-4111, sohorep.org. Through May 24. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.