Thursday, 25 May 2017
Review An Octoroon
by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Down The Brer Rabbit Hole
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a product of the US educational system - a graduate with a masters in drama from New York University, he's additionally an alumnus of a Julliard playwrights' programme. And he also happens to be black.
His 2014 play An Octoroon scoops up out of the syllabus a populist nineteenth century melodrama of almost the same name, The Octoroon. Wikipedia terms Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault's play an "anti slavery potboiler" and it scored a pre-Civil War success at the playwright's Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1859.
Jacobs-Jenkins satiric comedy drama begins very firmly in the 21st (ok maybe 20th century) with playwright BJJ (Ken Nwosu) - ah, yes of course Jacobs-Jenkins comes out of a university course! - in therapy for depression of the psychological rather than the economic kind
Whether the therapist is black or white, we never know but she or he suggests the playwright writes a riff on The Octoroon, a top hat and crinolines' barnstorming melodrama. The heir to a bankrupt antebellum Louisiana plantation falls for demure, but in legalistic terms racially flawed, Zoe (Iola Evans) and villainous shenanigans are afoot in the shape of a nouveau riche ex-overseer.
BJJ mounts a production but this means unexpected if not entirely unforeseeable casting difficulties. The playwright finds himself uncomfortably forced to double and triple up and don white face, even if a ressurrected Boucicault (Kevin Trainor) becoming a literal red face Native American redskin, takes it all more casually as part of the theatrical stock-in-trade.
Jacobs-Jenkins seems to share something of Boucicault's canny commercialism and eye on the main chance when he put together An Octoroon. This is not a criticism - 'twas ever so in theatre and An Octoroon's mix of middle-class academic high japes, cinematic commercialism, low comedy and genuine melodramatic potency makes the play something of a quadroon itself.
Before we mix you up with all these 'oons, we should explain, dear reader, our terminology. Originating in the time of slavery, an octoroon is of one eighth black descent. A quadroon is someone of one quarter black descent. These were legal definitions with huge ramifications, for before the abolition of slavery unless the octoroon had been proveably freed from slavery, he or she remained a slave.
We felt the biggest influence, in its melding together of race, finance and sharp ironies, irrationalities and humour, was Chinese-American David Henry Hwang's ingenious and rather more compact earlier Yellow Face.
But of course black history in the US is its own very particular often brutal, back and forth history. Directed by Ned Bennett with set by Georgia Lowe, threaded through this baggy, thought-provoking play is also a tale of black performers - minstrelsy, their representation in folk tales, abolitionist novels, cinema - finally emerging in the age of sub prime mortgages.
Where Jacobs-Jenkins scores is the recognition that melodrama renovates the creaky house of realism. It strips it of its pretention to rationality, with lives inside and outside fiction assailed by irrational desires and dangers.
The 21st century play An Octoroon may be clunky and self-conscious, but there is also strength in its raw red marrow uncovered.
By the end of An Octoroon, the focus has shifted away from the problematic beatification of octoroon Zoe and away from the men including the middle class playwright to the two dark skinned slave women, Minnie (Vivian Operah) and Dido (Emmanuella Cole)
Their initially peripheral situation and dependence for their existence on auctions and melodramatic paperwork devices provide a knotty resonance for more contemporary crises.
Faced with forces beyond their control, they raise An Octoroon from mere parody or a clever intellectual exercise about the black experience into a resonant piece about skin colour, women and property in modern America. In one stroke, An Octoroon becomes a much braver and original green light piece of work.