On Stage: An Octoroon

The satirical production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre makes a powerful statement on race.  

Photo by Scott Suchman

Photo by Scott Suchman Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth

The dilemma Branden Jacobs-Jenkins confronts in his provocative, satirical “An Octoroon,” now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is how racial prejudice extends beyond one’s appearance.

He has produced at times a convoluted, in-your-face serious/comic reimagining of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, “The Octoroon.” It is of note that Boucicault referred to “The”, while Jacob-Jenkins is “An.” An octoroon is an individual who is of one-eighth African descent. It was a racial category established at time when being a “Negro” was defined as anyone with the slightest trace of African ancestry in their blood. No matter how Caucasian a person’s and feature skin, that individual’s African ancestry is inescapable.

In a series of historical ironies, Boucicault’s 19th century play opened in New York’s Winter Garden Theater four days after the execution of John Brown in Harpers Ferry, West Va. And it was scheduled to open at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, five days after President Lincoln was assassinated there. So it never played Ford’s.

While focusing on Boucicault’s original play, Jacob-Jenkins has mixed in a 21st century cynicism and audience confrontation in his play. This is not an easy play to watch and understand. It takes a brilliant, talented cast to handle the complex script and staging. It is the smart cast that director Nataki Garrett has assembled and controlled that makes the nearly three-hour production work.

The play opens with Jon Hudson Odom appearing on stage in only his underwear briefs in front of a deep red curtain, a relic of an early theatrical era, to deliver a lengthy monologue to set up what’s coming when the curtain opens. He is an especially effective actor, and will eventually play three different characters. Since one satirical premise of the play is that there aren’t enough Caucasian actors, Odom, an African American actor, puts on whiteface makeup.

Joseph Castillo-Midyett, a Caucasian, portrays three different black characters, so he puts on minstrel blackface. Then James Konicek, who will also play three different characters, one of them a clichéd drunken Indian, covers his face with red greasepaint. You know before the play begins that “An Octoroon” will be farcical.

A quick summary of the standard plot is that George, one of Odom’s roles, has inherited his uncle’s Louisiana plantation that is facing financial collapse. George sees and falls in love with his cousin Zoe, a lovely Kathryn Tkel, who performs the title role with grace and subtlety. She is the illegitimate daughter of George’s uncle who has neglected to free her so she is in danger of being auctioned off as one of the plantation slaves.

And this is where a sinister character (too bad he doesn’t have a moustache to twist) is determined to buy the beautiful Zoe for himself. He is also portrayed by Odom.

While all this fits a conventional 19th century melodrama, Jacobs-Jenkins has much more to say about racial stereotyping, bigotry and cruelty. The plantation slaves are more rational and aware than the whites. “An Octoroon” is confusing at times and requires attention with the mixed-in stage antics. There is even a Br’er Rabbit character, Johari Parker-Namdar, wearing a large Disney-type rabbit head, who occasionally walks on and off the stage, saying nothing. He seems to be a reference to the stereotype of Uncle Remus, a happy, wise old southern slave who tells delightful stories to children. Oddly, the audience found him a welcome comedy relief.

Two other characters that stand out are house slaves Minnie (Shannon Dorsey) and Dido (Erika Rose). They speak in a 21st century slang and are humorously effective. Dorsey has superb comic timing.

It all ends well, but Jacobs-Jenkins has forced his audience to experience both the horror and the absurdity of bigotry and racism. He makes a powerful statement with painted faces that creates an awareness for even the 21st century American who believes there is a racial colorblindness developing, yet it still isn’t here.

“An Octoroon” runs through June 26, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. 

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