I'm on a bus right now on my way back from a very whirlwind 24-hour trip to New York for the purpose of meeting with various people about long-term archiving projects left over from last summer. Most of the people I was meeting with are also friends from grad school; one of them has a subscription to Theater For a New Audience
in Brooklyn, and asked last week if I wanted to go see a play with her while I was there, which is how I ended up seeing An Octoroon.An Octoroon
is constructed as a collaboration between two people -- Dion Boucicault, wildly popular white nineteenth-century melodramatist, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, up-and-coming black playwright, who begins the show by re-enacting the conversation with his therapist that led to him deciding to adapt Boucicault's 1857 popular melodrama, The Octoroon.
("Are you angry at white people?" "....no? Most of my best friends are white." "But, like, really, deep down, are you sure
you're not angry at white people?") He leaves the stage, then comes back: "Just kidding. That's not true. I can't afford a therapist."
(Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright, is played by Austin Smith.)
After that, "BJJ" (as he's credited in the program) comes back in again to apply his whiteface makeup: because he's having trouble finding white actors who are willing to play explicitly racist characters in a nineteenth-century melodrama, he explains, with irritated resignation, he will be playing all the white men in the show himself.
(The Jacobs-Jenkins monologues are in general witty, incisive and cutting, although I was briefly distracted by the part where he's relating a dream that concludes "then I realized the bees weren't attacking me ... I WAS the bees." DAMN IT, JUPITER ASCENDING
At this point, we are interrupted by an angry white man in underwear: hello, Dion Boucicault! Boucicault is VERY DISAPPOINTED in the state of the theater today, wants to know why this
low-grade theater doesn't have a petting zoo, and bemoans the days when he was the king of town and "everyone was hating on me. LIKE JESUS. ... I was the JESUS OF THEATER."
Boucicault then sits down to apply redface makeup: he'll be playing Wahnotee, the noble savage. "You can put Negros on the stage these days -- though you have to pay them! -- but you still can't get an Indian actor anywhere." His assistant, also onstage, gives the audience a speaking look before starting to apply his own blackface. (The assistant, played by Ian Lassiter, is also clearly not white; I wouldn't be surprised if he were Native American, but I couldn't say for sure.)
we're ready to start the actual play. The Octoroon
, the original melodrama by Dion Boucicault, centers on a noble young white man, George who comes back to his aunt and uncle's failing plantation and falls in love with his uncle's beautiful illegitimate child Zoe, daughter of a slave but raised as a young lady in the house. Alas! due to a bureaucratic technicality, Zoe still belongs to the estate, and is going to be sold at auction along with everything else to the evil M'Closky. M'Closky is extra evil because he murders an adorably mischievous slave boy in order to get his way and blames it on the boy's hapless Indian friend Wahnotee and it's all INCREDIBLY TRAGIC. An Octoroon
progresses its way through the first three scenes of the melodrama, retaining large chunks of the original text, with most of the cast -- in their various switched-around racial identities -- giving gloriously satirical performances. Austin Smith, as Every White Guy including Noble George and Evil M'Closkey, gets particular joy out of George's tragic declaration that he's going to SELL HIMSELF in marriage to a woman he doesn't love, to get the money to SAVE THE ESTATE AND THESE POOR SLAVES, while the loyal, elderly slave played by Lassiter trembles in teary-eyed awe at his sacrifice.
Meanwhile, slaves Dido and Minnie (played by black actresses; all of the men are race-swapped, but none of the women) switch on a dime from acting as background scenery in Boucicault's drama of white people to swapping jokes and gossip in stereotypical inner-city dialogue; they're brilliant, and it's funny, until the lines that drop in to remind you that no, actually, it's not funny at all,
and then they keep going and it's horrifically funny again.
(Also, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, every act is concluded with the entrance of somebody in a giant white rabbit costume who wanders around tidying up the stage. I have no idea what this is meant to represent.)
And then there's Zoe, portrayed by the absolutely gorgeous Amber Gray, who is the only one in the show who's playing it one hundred percent straight. Unlike everyone else, Zoe doesn't know she's in a satire. Zoe's confronting gut-wrenching racism, external and internal, and Amber Gray sells it one hundred percent.
The third act ends with Zoe sold to evil M'Closkey, Dido and Minnie also sold to a noble sea captain and pretty excited for their new life ("girl, we're gonna live on a BOAT!"), and Austin Smith-as-George getting in a knock-down drag-out fight with Austin-Smith-as-M'Closkey in the most hilarious piece of physical comedy I've seen in a long time.
And then comes the fourth act. ( I'm going to put this under a spoiler-cut, since it includes stuff that's potentially triggery and is definitely in the show for deliberate surprise and shock value as part of the point of the experience. )
"Well," said my friend, as we walked out, "I feel really weird right now."
She's planning on seeing it again. If I were still in New York, I think I might too.