An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brings us An Octoroon, his very strong post-modern and post-theatrical adaptation of an 1859 melodrama by Dionysius Boucicault (in turn, a version of a novel by Thomas Maine Reid). It’s genuinely provocative, on several levels, from the visceral (an historical image projected on the stage at a key point hits its mark) to the intellectual to the spectacular; Boucicault was writing and producing in the genre that demanded big theatrical effects, and this production both comments on that genre and makes good on its promise, with a outsized KABOOM!

Jacobs-Jenkins helps us out by framing his adaptation with direct address by two different versions of the playwright (one played by an African American and one by a European American [James Konicek, with the voice of an angelic bassoon]) in which he explains the creative and production challenges of reconstructing a pre-Civil War potboiler that calls for a cast of 21. In this way, he prepares us for an distanced approach to the material that he has reworked and appropriated for his own means—in a way that his misbegotten Appropriate does not. (Perhaps one’s reactions to that other play depend on whether one takes the title as an adjective or a verb.) Jacobs-Jenkins thus calls to mind another master and occasional mishandler of irony, surfaces, and the reality beneath, Herman Melville.

Suffice it to say that this is a show that benefits from program notes by the dramaturg and two company staffers concerned with things literary.

The script—and this production—attacks the question of appearance vs. reality by employing a black actor in whiteface, a white actor in redface, and another actor in the crudest of minstrelsy’s blackface (and “lawsa-lawsa” dialect). Certain characters act and speak as if they were on a stage in the 1800s, ready for their turn at Ford’s on 10th Street, while others (the entertaining Shannon Dorsey as Minnie) speak in the most contemporary of hip-hop vernacular. Pre-recorded underscoring accompanies expressive live cello work by Katie Chambers. A character eats a real banana, seated on a stage whose floor is covered in bits of cotton… representing, what exactly? A disaster effect is a blatant borrowing of a sight gag perfected by Buster Keaton nearly a century ago.

This is not to take away from the stage chops on display by Jon Hudson Odom in the triple roles of BJJ (one of Jacobs-Jenkins’s standins), George (the hero), and M’Closky (the mustache-twirling villain). The third-act cliffhanger calls for Odom to execute a knife fight with himself: smartly done!

  • An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Nataki Garrett, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

At the top of show, BJJ drinks off half of bottle of what looks to be whiskey. Woolly hasn’t seen such an interesting draught since Rob Leo Roy nightly chugged an bottle of Yoo-Hoo in The Food Chain.

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