It’s a modern (2014) play based on an old play (1859). It’s a madcap melodrama with a golden-haired hero and a lecherous villain. It’s a chilling statement on race. An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins opened at Artists Repertory Theatre last Saturday.
Co-directed by Artist Rep Artistic Director Damaso Rodriguez and Lava Alapai, the play begins with a meditation on plays by a playwright, BJJ (Joseph Gibson). He wanders the stage in his underwear, telling the audience of a conversation he and his therapist had, to get him excited about playwriting and to overcome depression. BJJ wanted to stage, The Octoroon (a popular play from 1859 written by Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault), but has run into problems because the white actors quit. He begins to apply whiteface so he can to play them himself. Playwright (intended to be Boucicault, Michael Mendelson) taunts BJJ, and laments how theatre has changed since his death. Enter Assistant (John San Nicolas). While Playwright applies redface, Assistant dons blackface, reminding us not only of TV western “Indians” from the 1950s, but also of the old minstrel shows where white people played people of color, and denigrated them.
Then BJJ pulls on his pants and gets into his play. We are transported to his version of the antebellum south, where slaves use modern vernacular and call each other the N-word. A mysterious Br’er Rabbit (Ayanna Berkshire), a cultural symbol for the trickster, strays in from the briar patch. And cotton falls from the sky. Lots and lots of cotton.
Are we uncomfortable yet? You better believe it. In his deconstruction of our country’s little race issue, Jacobs-Jenkins pulls out all the stops. Nothing is sacred. He leaves no stereotype unturned. And the audience is laughing so hard at the characters’ sit-com performances it can’t stop.
The play follows the basic melodramatic plot of the earlier play, with the white-faced Gibson playing both our sterling hero George and the evil, mustachioed M’Closky. Both characters wish to marry Zoe (Alex Ramirez de Cruz), the daughter of the recently deceased plantation owner, the Judge, and an octoroon. George willingly will take on the burden of marrying a woman who bears “The Mark of Cain” while M’Closkey has more devious purposes. Dora (Kailey Rhodes) wants to marry George. The estate is about to go to the villain because of money owed. And there’s even a murder!
Thanks to the genius of Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins, this melodrama twists and turns on itself, brilliantly and scathingly satirizing everything in its path. An Octoroon won the 2014 Obie Award for best new play, and its 32-year-old playwright’s earlier work, Gloria, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His material is as freshly rendered as it is biting. This truly is an unforgettable production.
An Octoroon runs through October 1 at Artists Repertory Theatre.
Photos: Top, Joseph Gibson as the villain M’Closkey with Zoe (Alex Ramirez de Cruz) swooning in the background. Center, Andrea Vernae as Minnie and Josie Seid as Dido, slaves talking the talk. Photos by Russell J. Young.