a theatre, film & pop culture review
It’s not often that one has the chance to see a production of Dion Boucicault’s famed 19th century melodrama, The Octoroon. Sure, the play’s discussion of race, identity, and politics — it tells of the romance between a white man and a woman who is 1/8 black (the so-called Octoroon) — still resonates to a certain degree today, but it couldn’t possibly stir up as much controversy as it did when it premiered in 1859, right?
Delightfully, deliciously wrong.
As the adaptor of piece, you have Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: the same playwright who gave us Neighbors, about a family of mixed race that becomes remarkably uncomfortable when the Crows — Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Jim and last but certainly not least, Topsy — move in next door. Naturally, the Crows are played by black actors in blackface.
It’s almost predictable then that Jacobs-Jenkins should choose to continue his exploration of race and identity through his own adaptation of a controversial race melodrama, aptly titling his own version The Octoroon: An Adaptation of The Octoroon Based on The Octoroon. What couldn’t have been anticipated was the dissension within the production itself: first, director Gavin Quinn (of the acclaimed Irish theatre company, Pan Pan) withdrew from helming the piece, as he and Jacobs-Jenkins (while both very PC, they were clearly swallowing some deeper animosities) cited “artistic differences” (read more here). Thus, at the 11th hour, Jacobs-Jenkins became that increasingly popular hyphenate — writer-director — for his first time professionally, while also forcing back the show’s opening from June 19 to June 26 so as to allow further development of the work and more rehearsals with the cast.
But the drama doesn’t end there.
In a stunt worthy of one Perez Hilton, actor Karl Allen, originally slated to play George Peyton (the white guy in love with the octoroon), wrote what he thought to be a private email to friends and family, denouncing the play and its playwright as shallow and insulting. Well, bully for him (and for us), some journalist at the Village Voice got hold of this delectable piece of correspondence and posted it to the paper’s arts blog here. Now, we can discuss ad nauseam the ethics of posting this private communication (as demonstrated by the many comments, Voice‘s readers are incensed by the writer’s lack of journalistic integrity), but isn’t it vastly more interesting, not to mention gleefully fun, to expound on the many ways in which the actor who penned this fateful email is glaringly off-base? Not to mention that this stunt marked his exit from the cast, inciting an obvious anger in Jacobs-Jenkins, who chose to use that anger to his advantage.
Having already infused the original piece with pitch-perfect contemporary language (“gurrrrl, those are some cool-ass white people”) and a multitude of clever additional scenes (LayToya Lewis and Kim Gainer as black slaves Dido and Minnie, steal the show with their easy urban banter), Jacobs-Jenkins made the remarkable decision to not replace Allen, or actor Daniel Manley, who was set to play the American Indian Wahnotee, but also left the show for unspecified reasons (see the red-faced Manley in the original publicity photos above right). As the “playwright,” BJJ opens the show himself, donning red-face and a feathered headband (and an I ❤ NY shirt, natch). He introduces what he discovered as his through-line for the piece: “No More Drama.” As Mary J. Blige’s soulfully strong voice — along with smoke and low, warm lighting — fills the room, Jacobs-Jenkins slowly begins to rock back and forth. As his movements become increasingly stronger and angrier, his entire body being thrown against the floor, the female cast members enter and join him in this physical and emotional release. By the time the music fades out, Jacobs-Jenkins has disappeared from the stage, and the rest of the production plays on without him, with Blige’s opening musical phrase repeating at optimal points throughout the course of the drama-filled show.
Anger not only feeds the writer-director, but his cast as well. When Zoe the octoroon (played with fierce emotion by Amber Gray) plays out the pivotal romantic scene, she does so in a tense one-sided dialogue, pleading to an empty space, shedding tears to responses we cannot hear. While it takes the audience a minute to catch up with what Jacobs-Jenkins had done — or rather, not done by refusing to replace Allen– as soon they collectively ‘get it,’ they also get Jacobs-Jenkins. The super-heady playwright is also super-smart: with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU, BJJ can’t help but question the nature of drama along with the nature of human and racial identity, and so after performing certain scenes, the actors receive letters from the playwright himself. Some letters contain quotes from theoretical essays by original playwright Boucicault, which the actors are then asked to respond to as themselves, not the characters they are playing (the fantastic Mary Wiseman, as Dora, the plantation-owner’s white daughter, was especially eloquent in her distinction, as an actor, between ‘interest’ and ‘sympathy’ of character vs. the entire play).
Never knowing what to expect (the actors receive different questions each night), it’s not clear whether BJJ developed this letter device after losing Allen or before: did the actor’s dismissal of Jacobs-Jenkins’s work incite an existential dilemma, causing the playwright to question his role and the actor’s role within theatre? Or did Allen’s retreat unwittingly add even more depth to the already layered, though unpolished, piece? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does is that we have a very intelligent, talented, and determined new voice emerging in the theatre community. And nothing — not artistic differences, imperious actors, nor labored 19th century melodrama — can stop that voice from being heard.
The Octoroon: An Adaptation of the Octoroon Based on the Octoroon is at P.S. 122 through July 3.