To be a “black playwright,” according to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins‘s onstage surrogate, BJJ, is to have every work examined through the lens of racial discord in America, be it relevant or not. Write about farm animals and their feed as an allegory for substance abuse? Must be a deconstructed, modernized African folktale. Ask a Caucasian actor to play a period-appropriate bigot? Must be a personal expression of rage against white society. Use the bathroom? Whoa, enough with the social animus, buddy.
If Jacobs-Jenkins is to be backed into a creative corner by literary managers and critics, he’ll go there on his own terms, he tells us in in a direct-to-audience prelude. Inspired by a suggestion from his imaginary therapist (“I can’t afford one [in real life]. . . . You people are my therapy”), BJJ (played by Breon Arzell) slathers on whiteface and, for the sake of discovery, plays the slave-owning leads in a revival of Irish-American actor-playwright Dion Boucicault’s wildly successful—and wildly racist—1859 melodrama The Octoroon. Moments later, he’s met by Boucicault himself (Chris Sheard), his costar for the evening, who’s a little too eager to paint his own face red and perform as a cartoonishly savage Indian, Wahnotee. One project; two very different collaborators.
On the rare occasion The Octoroon is performed today, it’s done so under an asterisk, presented as a historical artifact and handled gingerly. Here, Jacobs-Jenkins rips the gloves off and tears into the nitty-gritty of Boucicault’s tale of cruel enslavement and interracial love on a Louisiana plantation, deploying an arsenal of metatheatrical tricks, irreverent comedic jolts, and emotional gut punches to—as one character notes in an audience aside—”make you feel something.” An Octoroon plays out like a daring experiment, its various stylistic and narrative threads pulled, stripped, and crossed throughout with inconsistent and intermittently electrifying results.
I didn’t see Sarah Benson’s acclaimed 2014 New York world debut, but judging from accounts of it, this Chicago premiere from Definition Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith and presented in association with the Goodman, significantly diverges from the music-driven, visually spectacular off-Broadway staging at SoHo Rep. Sound designer Aaron Stephenson uses old-timey piano covers of on-the-nose anachronisms like Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” between scenes, but it would be a stretch to tag this a modern melodrama, as the original production was treated. With no live music and an understated set by Andrew Boyce, it falls to the cast to send up and subvert the 19th-century theatrical tropes.
And their outsize performances really do. As Zoe, the titular octoroon and object of plantation heir George Peyton’s affection, Ariel Richardson gives an affecting performance filled with striking silhouette-like poses and raw recitations of prose. While “white” folks squabble operatically in the foreground about deeds and debts (Arzell does double duty as noble hero Peyton and stock villain M’Closkey, and Carley Cornelius goes broad as wealthy heiress and romantic rival Dora Sunnyside), characters relegated to the background in Boucicault’s text are given the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern treatment. As a house slave making the best of her hellish circumstances, Sydney Charles hilariously employs a whip-smart stand-up-style delivery, and though they’re given fewer punch lines, her frequent scene partners Maya Prentiss and Tiffany Oglesby effectively anchor the dark comedy in some of the play’s strongest, most pointed exchanges.
In blackface as an elderly slave, like something out of a minstrel horror-comedy, Danielle Davis contributes incendiary bits (lifted straight from Boucicault’s original) that shock with genuinely arresting postmodern humor. Her bravery and wit pay out exceptional dividends.
Running at about two and a half hours, An Octoroon retains The Octoroon‘s plot contrivances, and stretches that should resonate viscerally—including a stark reminder of real-life unspeakable evil—have dampened impact as a result of its longueurs. But for folks who heed Definition’s adjuration to “Stay in it” and meet the show halfway, there are rewards aplenty. v
This review has been amended to correctly identify one of the songs used in this production. It is Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” not Ray Charles’s “You Don’t Know Me.”