In an impassioned speech just before the end of the first act, Zoe reveals herself. Of the blood that fills my heart, she says, one drop in eight is black. And that is why George, the white heir to Plantation Terrebonne, cannot love nor marry her; for she is An Octoroon. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2014 Obie Award winning play is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, which premiered in New York in 1859.
Boucicault’s play concerns the lives and loves of the residents of the aforementioned slave plantation. It is said to have caused great controversy in its time because of its refusal to take a side in the abolitionist debate, to the offence of both sides. Jacobs-Jenkins is also controversial in his reworking, but for different reasons – not least the brazen and repeated use of the n-word.
For those who know the work of Jacobs-Jenkins, the contentious nature of An Octoroon will come as no surprise. In Appropriate, he explores anti-blackness exclusively through the lens of a white family; while in Neighbors a black family wear the blackface of minstrel shows. It seems to be something of a theme of his work to challenge his audiences, and specifically, to challenge their preconceptions of what it means to be a Black playwright.
The prologue is dominated by this conversation. Miss a single second and the rest of the play is hardly worth watching. In it we see a bare-bottomed Ken Nwosu as BJJ, who delivers a lengthy speech about the frustrations of being a writer who happens to be black. BJJ’s state of undress is a metaphor for his vulnerability. The production is staged in the round and the entire space – including the audience – is fully lit for the duration; BJJ has nowhere to hide.
His speech – punctuated with the bass-heavy hypermasculine sounds of Step Yo Game Up by Snoop Dogg, feat. Lil Jon and Trina and delivered as he meticulously applies tippex white paint to his face and neck – is a conversation between him and his white therapist, who may or may not be real. He reflects on the qualities of a good artist, versus the limitations of being a black one. She accuses him of hating white people, and suggests he adapt The Octoroon as a way to combat his low-grade depression.
So it’s a play within a play, about that time BJJ tried to adapt a play. But first, we meet in the latter stage of the prologue a drunk and obnoxious Playwright (Kevin Trainor), a version of Dion Boucicault, who challenges BJJ to a duel in which they scream FUCK YOU in perfect unison and crescendoing fashion until BJJ gives up and slopes off. And so it begins.
There are fourteen characters taken on by the nine-strong ensemble. Some double or triple up. Kevin Trainor is generous in his portrayal of Playwright/Wanhotee/Lafouche. Alistair Toovey handles Assistant/Pete/Paul with gusto. Ken Nwosu offers a truly dextrous performance in his BJJ/George/M’Closky. He literally leaps from role to role with grace and eloquence and is utterly captivating to watch. And then there are the women: a pair of house slaves named Minnie and Dido and a field slave named Grace, played with chutzpah by Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare. Celeste Dodwell is magnificent as the sympathetic southern belle Dora, and the eponymous Octoroon, Zoe, is portrayed with earnestness by a sweet-faced Iola Evans.
Ned Bennett and Ivan Blackstock are a formidable creative pair. The former renders no space in the auditorium out of bounds; the aisles of the Dorman are animated under his direction. He brings together the combination of metatheatrics, melodrama and the absurd in Brechtian technique. Meanwhile, Blackstock’s movement is extraordinary. Georgia Lowe’s set design of a wooden floor adds to the Brechtian quality, and Elliot Griggs’ ardent lighting design heightens it still.
There is black face, white face, red face, pyrotechnics, strobe lighting, drums, a character in roller skates, and a tap-dancing rabbit. At one point the entire pit is engulfed in the flames of a real fire. Under the direction of Michael Henry, Kwêsi Edman’s cello interludes are a gift, bowing down the intensity in times of overstimulation. It all makes the actual story practically impossible to follow but this feels intentional; An Octoroon is not here for your entertainment; it is here to provoke.
The whole point of the thing, the ending goes, is to make you feel something. I am reminded of American Academic Peggy McIntosh and her paper White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In it, she ponders how her whiteness makes her life easier than the lives of her black counterparts. One of the conditions reads: I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. In other words, black people are widely assumed to be a monolithic entity and are expected to behave as such.
Black theatre does not escape this generalisation. Plays of the genre are heavily weighted and thus limited by the significance of their presence in a landscape where they are seldom allowed to exist; and if they are, it is within specifically dictated parameters. When black plays are staged, the stakes are high and they must be all things to all people. An Octoroon is defiant in the face of the expectations of blackness, and this defiance is at the heart of its genius.
That isn’t to say I didn’t find it problematic; I did. And I tried really hard to hate it. But I could not – it is a masterpiece.
An Octoroon is on until 18 July 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.