‘An Octoroon’: A new take on mixed-race melodrama
BOSTON – An octoroon , by definition, is someone with one-eighth black blood, an amount that still made it illegal for the person to marry a white person in the South before the Civil War – or for many years afterward.
When Playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins came upon a successful pre-Civil War melodrama called “The Octoroon,” an enormously popular play by Dion Boucicault that opened in 1859 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, he was intrigued.
He injected both himself – and Boucicault – into “An Octoroon,” a very different adaptation of “The Octoroon” now being presented by Arts Emerson and Company One in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Theatre .
Jacobs-Jenkins has been represented recently on Boston stages by two other vastly different productions: “Appropriate” at Speakeasy Stage and “Neighbors” at Company One, and with this latest Obie Award-winning production, it’s safe to say there is no pigeon-holing this up-and-coming playwright.
That’s not to say that there aren’t difficult and off-putting moments in the play within a play called “An Octoroon.” That’s because there’s a rather convoluted setting of the stage before Jacobs-Jenkins launches full-scale into the melodrama, a theatrical genre which has been seen only periodically on the Boston stage: Several productions of “The Drunkard” come to mind.
Brandon Green plays the playwright himself – BJJ, if you will – who comes to the stage in a state of undress as the piece opens. As he explains the what he is doing, he reveals that because there aren’t enough decent white actors – just as playwrights of the past justified decisions to put white actors in blackface because there weren’t enough black actors – he will perform two roles himself in whiteface, which he applies as he speaks to his audience about his decision.
He soon is joined by Dion Boucicault (Brooks Reeves) himself – full of himself and the role he played in the theater, including “inventing matinees” — and the two slowly begin to don the wardrobe for the roles they will play.
And while Jacobs-Jenkins will put his own stamp on “The Octoroon,” he has incorporated many of the elements and the main story line of Boucicault’s work. BJJ will play both the hero, George Peyton, the lofty-minded heir to the plantation Terrebonne that is in financial crisis, and M’Closky, the newly-rich overseer and villain whose deeds have created the crisis and who is George’s rival for the affections of the beautiful octoroon Zoe (Shawma James) , who is deeply in love with George.
BJJ’s assistant (Harsh Gagoomal) will don blackface to play two black characters: an impossibly racist caricature of an elderly black slave named Pete and another young slave named Paul.
And while we’re talking stereotypes, Reeves as Boucicault dons the reddest of red makeup you can as a drunken, warlike Indian in full headdress named Wahnotee and later returns – with red makeup hilariously intact and explained as “a sunburn” – to serve as a slave auctioneer.
By the way, because the story is a melodrama, theater-goers are allowed – make that encouraged – to boo and hiss the villain mercilessly and cheer the hero’s bravery, and later will participate in a slave auction.
There’s other stock characters such as the over-the-top Southern belle named Dora (Bridgette Hayes), who may be the key to Terrebonne’s financial ills and refuses to believe that George would throw her over for the octoroon.
There’s some fine comic moments delivered by three snarky slaves on the plantation – played by Elle Borders, Obehi Janice, and Amelia Lumpkin – whose patois is decidedly more hip and urban than what Boucicault had in mind.
Two of the slaves dryly note they didn’t know they were going to be sold because they couldn’t read the 10-foot-high poster hanging behind them, announcing the sale.
Overseeing it all is a mysterious character drawn from the Southern tales of Uncle Remus – yes, it’s a nattily attired Br’er Rabbit (Kadah J. Bennett), who can set events in motion with a snap of his fingers.
Into Jacobs-Jenkins’ mixmaster it all goes, and the result is both – thanks to graphic images projected at one point – exhilarating and horrifying. The generous use of the “n Word” is historically accurate but there’s no doubt it can be off-putting and jarring.
Director Summer L. Williams, one of the Boston’s area finest young directors, is fully in sync with Jacobs-Jenkins’ vision, especially after having directed his “Neighbors” at Company One.
“An Octoroon” demands your patience as the author takes the time to explain at the beginning in great detail where he wants to go and why he decided to go there.
At a recent performance, some in the sold-out theater didn’t return after intermission. That’s a pity, and their loss. But it’s a risk Jacobs-Jenkins as a playwright is willing to take to make his points.
The Arts Emerson and Company One production of Brandon Jacob-Jennings’ “An Octoroon.” Directed by Summer L. Williams. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Theatre, 599 Washington St., Boston, through Feb. 27. companyone.org or artsemerson.org.