Company One’s “Octoroon” Is Darkly Hilarious (4.5 Stars)
By Mike Hoban
An Octoroon – Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Directed by Summer L. Williams. Presented by Company One in conjunction with ArtsEmerson at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston through February 27
“An Octoroon”, the latest offering from the always-imaginative Company One, is not like anything else you’re likely to see this year. As a matter of fact, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see anything like the source work of the same title again, unless you own a time machine and head back to the days before the Emancipation Proclamation to catch the Broadway hit. The original “Octoroon” was a melodrama written by Irish playwright Dion Boucicoult that principally told the story of George Peyton, who inherits a Louisiana plantation (complete with slaves) that is about to be foreclosed upon, and his forbidden love for Zoe, the beautiful Octoroon of the title. (Octoroon is a designation for mixed race persons with one-eighth “black blood”, thus barring them from eligibility to marry “white” people. Zoe is also coveted by M’Closky, an evil plantation owner whom Zoe has spurned, and who is bent on destroying all that is “good” about the Peyton plantation to achieve his ends.
In order to bring this now absurd original play back to life, a lot of re-tooling was necessary, and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (who also wrote “appropriate” – which Speakeasy Stage Company mounted a marvelous production of last fall) has succeeded rather brilliantly. Considering the original was done with an all-white cast in “blackface”, and the stereotypes of the slaves and Native American character might be just a tad offensive, a lot of that re-framing is what makes “Octoroon” alternately hilarious and insightful. Both George and M’Closky are portrayed by African-American actor Brandon Green in white face (he is an absolute howl as the earnestly virtuous George), but he also plays playwright Jacobs-Jenkins (who is African-American himself) alter ego BJJ, who we meet at the outset of the play as he wanders onstage from his seat in the audience. Ironically, BJJ engages in a bit of racial stereotyping himself as he details his conversations with his clueless therapist (of whom his impression sounds suspiciously like a Wellesley-educated white woman) about his thoughts on how race affects his work, all the while listening to a hip-hop tune and guzzling down half a bottle of Hennessey – the cognac that has long been marketed to African-American men.
As BJJ is donning his “whiteface” makeup to prepare for the play, he meets a very drunken version of Boucicoult (Brooks Reeves), the playwright of the original work, who comments, “The great thing about the future is that you can actually use real Negroes in your plays…of course, you have to pay them now…” which is the kind of jarring commentary that Jacobs-Jenkins uses throughout to keep us off-balance in this tragicomedy. We then see Reeves make himself up in “redface” to portray the Native American Wahnotee (who of course, has a great fondness for rum), and as the play begins, they are joined by Harsh Gagoomal (an actor of South Asian descent), who puts on blackface to play two slaves – wise old house slave Pete, and Paul, a mentally challenged “picaninny” (I told you it was offensive). Perhaps to avoid further confusion, the female African American and white characters are portrayed by those of their own apparent race – sans makeup – but they’re no less ridiculous.
For the play within the play, Jacobs-Jenkins uses the original text from “An Octoroon” – played way over the top by this terrific cast. In addition to the heavily made-up race-crossing male actors, Bridgette Hayes plays delusional Southern belle Dora with a demented zeal. The acting for this portion of the play melds the physical exaggeration of silent films with the over emoting of an early John Waters movie, and it is really effective in a very dark way. In one scene, George deadpans to Pete that “because you are (black), you can’t possibly understand complex human emotions”, and while it’s absurdly funny on one level, it’s deeply disturbing on another. But not all of the original text feels campy, especially the portrayal of Zoe by Shawna M. James, who is genuinely touching in her role. And house slaves Minnie (Elle Borders) and Dido (Obehi Janice) are a riot as the modern urban slang spouting gossip girls.
But the play isn’t all fun and games. The slave auction – even in the context of the self-parodying play – is a stark reminder that people were actually sold as commodities in this country 150 years ago. And the projected slides of lynched African-Americans towards the end really rams the point home, especially when, upon examination, you realize that the photos aren’t from right after the Civil War, but from the mid-twentieth century. The montage of those images closed with a photo of a Klansman being lynched by a naked black man, which in a strange way, felt redemptive.
“An Octoroon” isn’t what one would call a feel-good comedy. But it is imaginative, riveting theater, and should be seen by anyone who likes their comedy a little more challenging. For more info, go to: https://companyone.org/production/an-octoroon-play/