While over on this side of the river Hamilton is sucking the oxygen out of the theatrical discussion circles, there is an equally compelling production going on across the river in Brooklyn at Theatre For A New Audience in the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play, An Octoroon, which was a sell-out at the Soho Rep last season, has been restaged and given a new glorious life. Although the cast has changed, the director is still Sarah Benson, and the production retains its ability to un-seat you where you sit.
Jacobs Jenkins writes himself into the play from the start. As BJJ (Austin Smith) he enters the theatre in his underwear and announces, “I am a ‘black playwright’. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m here to tell you a story.” What begins as a flimsy session with a therapist turns into a discussion about the writer who actually inspres BJJ – Dion Boucicault, a 19th century author of The Octoroon. The therapist urges BJJ to produce an adaptation, and when the white actors quit the production, she tells BJJ to play the white parts. Fast forward to BJJ putting on whiteface and serving up a rant about the inability of a black actor to get cast as anything but a stereotype.
As he does so Dion Boucicault emerges from the past, listens for awhile, starts an argument with BJJ and takes over the stage. He has his own rant about how the theatre has disappointed him, and tells his miserable story while applying redface and donning an American Indian outfit complete with headdress.
We slide sideways in a brilliant bit of theatrical magic to The Plantation Terrebonne, in Louisiana where Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Armand) where Jacobs Jenkins has taken great liberties to imagine a conversation between these two women. They discuss the latest gossip, relationships – you know so-and-so met somebody at a slave-mixer but she dumped his ass because, you know, she couldn’t deal with the long distance.
Say what? And we are hooked.
The melodrama unfolds. George (Austin Smith) , the nephew of the plantation owner is being smothered by a local gal Dora (Mary Wiseman) while he truly loves Zoe (Amber Grey) the Octoroon. The plantation has fallen on hard times and ii is the intention of the evil neighbor M’Closky (Austin Smith) to take it over and Zoe along with it. Ian Lassiter does double duty as the slave elder, Pete, and the young simple-minded boy Paul – wearing blackface of course.
The ‘n” word is spread liberally throughout the story until you almost – but not quite – get used to is. Jacobs-Jenkins is pushing every envelope on which he can get his hands. Black actors are white. White actors are red. Everyone in this story – with the possible exception of Dora – is a fool more than once. Black and white and red. They are self centered and short-sighted. The ground on which they stand is no firmer than the pile of cotton balls that everyone has to wade through more than once. True love may try and win the day, but the complications and intricacies of slavery will bring it down.
This is a past that Jacobs-Jenkins makes palatable by injecting humor, but that, in the end – after an excruciating silent video – leaves us in the dark. With our own inner voice that asks – what now?
Racism is still here, and this production reminds us that it is part of our heritage. Jacobs-Jenkins is shining a light where few have dared to look. Bravo.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; directed by Sarah Benson; choreography by David Neumann; songs and music/musical direction by César Alvarez; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Wade Laboissonniere; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Matt Tierney; projections by Jeff Sugg; hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Amanda Spooner; general manager, Michael Page; production manager, Kat Tharp. A Soho Rep production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director; Henry Christensen III, chairman; Dorothy Ryan, managing director. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, between Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, tfana.org. Through March 15. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Maechi Aharanwa (Minnie), Pascale Armand (Dido), Danielle Davenport (Grace), Amber Gray (Zoe), Ian Lassiter (Assistant/Pete/Paul), Austin Smith (B J J/George/M’Closky), Haynes Thigpen (Playwright/Wahnotee/Lafouche) and Mary Wiseman (Dora).