In the mid-19th century, The Octoroon was a popular bit of melodrama: a mixed-race tragedy carried by a number of titillating revelations and imagined by the celebrated Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, An Octoroon, currently at Soho Rep, is an utterly 21st century version of Boucicault’s play; it comes with all the requisite avowals and drama, but it starts with a confession of a more contemporary sort. In the production’s opening monologue, the playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, reveals through his alter ego, “BJJ,” that he has a problem with race, or rather with how critics interpret all his plays as “deconstructing the race problem in America.” It makes him so upset in fact that his therapist has suggested he try this adaptation to get some of those feelings off his chest.
Thank goodness for shrinks. BJJ might not like the D-word but it’s safe to say that An Octoroon riffs savagely, indeed, on racial stereotypes and may be the funniest and smartest take on the “race question” recently seen on stage. It also offers a salutary deconstruction (if the term can safely be applied in this context) of the plot-heavy hand-wringer on which it is based. From BJJ’s confession to a last, lengthy discussion among the cast members on how to approach the play’s final act, An Octoroon is a savvy piece of meta-theater.
For those unfamiliar with it, which is mostly everyone today, Boucicault’s play opened at New York’s Winter Garden in 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War and the antebellum South’s protracted defense of slavery. As sympathetic to the abolitionist movement as he may have been, the playwright traded freely in a stock character that greatly charmed white female readers of the day: the tragic octoroon (a fair-skinned woman of one-eighth black ancestry) and her darker, biracial cousin, the equally tragic mulatta. Both characters share the lives of the white plantation owners from whom they are in part descended but their tales hinge on the fact that they must eventually learn to share the fate of the common slaves apart from whom they had existed until then.
In other words, familiar as it was in American as well as in French-Creole literature of the day (from France’s slave-dependent Caribbean colonies), Boucicault’s trope was a loaded gun. It steamrolled the issues of race and racism in favor of the question of gender rights in order to please a predominantly white female readership. It follows that any production of the play today would have to deconstruct the race question; it’s the elephant in the room that there is no getting around.
So what does the author of this Octoroon do with that behemoth? For one, he takes some familiar black stereotypes and puts them center stage where we can’t ignore them. There’s Pete, a regular Uncle Tom, and Paul, a good, little pickaninny. Both are played, in black face, by Ben Horner as if they were two sides of the same coin. There’s Zoe, of course, the octoroon in question (Amber Gray, childlike in her innocence and earnestness); she is as good and pure as her skin is white, until the miscegenation of her birth is revealed, which leads her straight to the auction block. These characters get far more treatment and agency in Jacobs-Jenkins’ version, and Sarah Benson’s direction, than in the original. There’s even Br’er Rabbit himself, the trickster from African-American folktales, in a bow tie and plaid jacket, who wanders onto the set in between scenes looking like he can’t make head or tails of what’s going on.
But there are also three slaves whom Boucicault never could have imagined and whom Jacobs-Jenkins lifts off the streets of his native New York City: Minnie, Dido and Grace, played by the formidable comic trio of Jocelyn Bioh, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Shyko Amos. They might be working the fields and serving tea in “slave rags,” but with their punctuated inflections (“Whaaat?”), raised eyebrows and hip-swagger, they clearly have more in common with Queen Latifah than the chattel they are meant to be.
The tenor of Jacobs-Jenkins “deconstruction” is set almost immediately, then, when, immediately after that monologue, the back wall of the set crashes down like 200+ years of clichés and reveals the house domestics. While Dido sweeps cotton balls with large, annoyed pushes of her broom, Minnie, lolls about on a pile of them with a wicked, “Me, work?” demeanor. Clearly, at least one of these woman is not taking her condition of subservience lying down. Later, Grace, a fieldhand, will scold Minnie, for “acting ghetto” and “embarrassing the community” and Minnie will convince Dido to ply their female charms on a boat captain so he will buy them at auction and they can live her fantasy, described as only Minnie might: “Imagine: if we lived on a steamboat, coasting up and down the river, looking fly, wind whipping at our hair and our slave tunics and shit and we surrounded by all these fine muscle-y boat niggas who ain’t been wit a woman in years?”
Jacobs-Jenkins use of the urban black idiom in the mouths of Boucicault’s slaves provides a continually unfurling comic patter but also helps see these women in different surroundings, no longer on the veranda of a Louisiana mansion but perhaps in the doorway of a housing project in Fort Greene or a stoop in Bed-Stuy.
Meanwhile, a lot is happening in the plot: budding love, broken hearts, bankruptcy, a bludgeoning, and eventually the sale of Terrebonne, the plantation where Zoe and all those slaves live, to its evil overseer. Sarah Benson’s direction drives through Boucicault’s plot with the speed of a till over plowed fields; we get the essentials and glide past (and don’t miss) the rest. Mimi Lien’s skeletal set of a wall and a door for Terrebonne leaves not even a suspicion of a neoclassical column; modern minimalism keeps the action more or less anywhere, although the slave quarters are represented by a fully realistic cabin illuminated by oil lamps and surrounded by tall grasses.
As for muscley men, while the women excel with zeal in the roles of the slaves and a dolled-up white heiress, Dora Sunnyside (Zoë Winters), Boucicault’s many male characters are expertly dispensed with by just three actors. In addition to Horner, Chris Meyers does poetic justice in white face to his double role as the yin-yang opposites of George Peyton, Terrebonne’s enlightened and noble inheritor, and McCloskey the black-souled overseer (he also lends a dangerous intensity to BJJ in the opening scenes). Danny Wolohan fills in another set of opposites, with a kind of disillusioned grit, playing Boucicault himself, and Wahnotee, the stock “Injun” savage who completes the play’s round-up of minority stereotypes.
The one false note in an overall exciting, street-smart production comes in the closing discussion of how best to end the play: with an ironic shrug for the bemused contemporary theatergoer? Or with the melodramatic bang that Boucicault’s audience expected? Creating the latter relied on a surprise the likes of which is no surprise in 2014, so BJJ tells us he “figured he’d try” something that won’t be “too disappointing.” It’s a visual stunt, the nature of which must remain a secret here, but it confuses registers by replacing Boucicault’s shocker, which advances the plot, with a horror that does not need to be reiterated to remind us that racism didn’t die with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Still, we can generously thank Jacobs-Jenkins for an Octoroon for our times, one which deserves at least as much success as Boucicault’s famed melodrama did in his.