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Features Published 3 July 2017

An Octoroon

"I am still grappling with finding a work so dispiriting when it's been so widely loved" - Salome Wagaine on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' reimagining of a historical slave narrative.
Salome Wagaine
Emmanuella Cole, Alistair Toovey and Vivian Oparah in 'An Octoroon' at Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard.

Emmanuella Cole, Alistair Toovey and Vivian Oparah in ‘An Octoroon’ at Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard.

“As in his first play Neighbors, seen at HighTide in 2013, Jacobs-Jenkins deploys minstrelsy to expose and exaggerate the racism in such representation… It’s all deeply shocking, but darkly hilarious; satire at its most scornful.” Matt Trueman, WhatsOnStage

Taking advantage of its extended run, I saw An Octoroon during its final week at the Orange Tree. I left feeling viscerally disappointed. More significantly, however, I am still grappling with finding a work so dispiriting when it’s been so widely loved, including by many I respect. I’ve disagreed with colleagues, friends and critics about culture before, but this is different. This is about an experience at the theatre that made me leave the theatre feeling distrustful of the majority of the people I was watching it with.

The moment this feeling hit home for me was when the audience was shown a projected photograph of a lynching, in the shape of two dead black man hanging from a tree in black and white. It’s an image I am familiar with. As a child with an interest in history, and who wanted to learn about the history of the people I looked like, textbooks and nonfiction guides broadly speaking left me with two in-depth options (Benin’s bronze and Timbuktu’s existence could usually only muster a page or so): the ancient Egyptians and the black civil rights struggle in America. Before it was deemed appropriate for me to learn about penetrative sex in school, I had already got used to seeing photos of pre-rotting black men hanging from trees as white crowds looked on. Or when charity singles come to our aid, the accompanying music videos provide images of dying African women naked and/or emaciated, their children thronged by flies.

I must have been in my late teens or early twenties before I heard of the African-American Gullah language, or appreciated the deep roots and cultural richness of the sheer existence of Br’er Rabbit and names like LaShonda: the only prism through which I first learnt of African American culture was one of victimhood and public, dehumanising death and brutality.

In this context, plopping a photo of a decades old execution on stage isn’t particularly audacious: why not, instead, provide the image of a living, smiling Tamir Rice or closer to home, or the loving fatherhood of Edson da Costa? The most radical, thrilling part of the film Moonlight wasn’t the high school beating, but the tender diner scene. As with Vanishing Point’s The Destroyed Room, which used the video footage of a drowning refugee to point a finger at the comfort of the theatregoing crowd, the deployment of other’s people suffering felt cheap and easy.

The play itself is performed well, but I was also disappointed to note the by-numbers quality of the dialogue between the two main black women for the bulk of the show. (The lyrical stillness of their last shared scene was a delight, one I wish we had had more of.) Especially in a British context, where African-American vernacular English is most commonly accessed through Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the satire of it fell flat – the laughter at the suggestion Minnie is ‘ghetto’ came a little bit too easily. Worse still were the chuckles when the characters were brought in for the auction. The two women in the house have tried to make themselves look appealing, sexy even, so that they might be bought up by a man with boat enough and cheekbones enough that the prospect of being raped by him is light relief for their situation. There is no doubt that enslaved African women could not have only been sullen or sad for the entire duration of their lives, but the knowledge of the toxic combination of hypersexualisation, undesirability and drought of sympathy faced by black women made the cheekiness of the scene a difficult pill to swallow.

Likewise, the implications of portraying an alcoholic Native American on stage likely don’t pull as big of a punch in a British theatre, because we have less of an awareness of the issues faced by Native American and First Nations communities today with substance abuse and self-medication.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins seeks to unbridle himself from the confines of being a ‘black playwright’. I get this on both a personal and a political level. The problem with this staging is that the production transfers the burden of representation onto the few black audience members there will be watching. Throughout, there are knowing jokes about all the white people in here, how it’s a white people party and so on. What would happen if there were no or very few white people in watching on a given night? This wasn’t allowed as a possibility. Which doesn’t chime with how audiences work: if there is a show or an exhibition that in some way centres blackness in this country, we will come and see it, even if we’re not previously familiar with your venue or organisation. That we showed up doesn’t make us white or statistically irrelevant, especially in a staging in the round that makes ample use of house lights and the ability to see your fellow spectators.

This is An Octoroon’s UK premiere and since I’ve watched the performance, I have sought out a range of reviews and responses. So far, all the blogs and articles I’ve seen written have been by white writers. That I am providing a ‘black take’ on the play at the end of its run is a frustration: I’d much rather not have to feel the obligation to comment in response to the overwhelmingly glowing critical and audience response. 

Going against the grain on a work of this nature brings with it the fear that my perspective might be reduced to a critique on ‘identity’ grounds. It’s frustrating that the act of disagreeing while black is an inevitable provocation. But I am also wary of this article being received as some kind of community response. I do not wish to deny the existence of black people who relished the work, and who contributed to the production. I have simply provided one perspective as a black audience member who went expecting something great and didn’t get that. 

I seek no pleasure from being a contrarian, but I ultimately remain surprised by how little I could empathise with the bulk of what was taking place on stage. Since watching, I have found myself asking how they rehearsed using the word ‘nigger,’ or how many times they would have blacked and redded up during the course of the run. And worrying, too, that articulating these thoughts might make me come across as uncultured, not contemporary enough to appreciate the deftness of the work.

Ultimately, for all its cleverness, An Octoroon left me in a room with an audience I didn’t feel I was expected to be a part of. The bulk of the time its two black women were on stage they were ‘sassy’. There appeared to be no reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, to The New Jim Crow (a penal system which imprisons millions of African-Americans), to the fact our Foreign Secretary has used the same language to describe contemporary black people (“piccaninnies”) as the historical characters in An Octoroon do to describe a slain boy.

As an American play on a very British stage, more work needed to be done to contextualise the tropes found within the ‘A plot’ of the original text and the ‘B plot’ of BJJ’s updated attempts to stage, de- and re-problematicise The Octoroon. It is a work contemporary in form, but not current enough. America’s lynchings didn’t stop in the 1960s, and its distinct history of racism shouldn’t prohibit us from examining our own structural problems.

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Salome Wagaine is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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