Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is, in the fullest sense, sensational. It’s an ingeniously crafted update of one of the most popular plays of the 19th century, Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, one that honors not only that flawed but fascinating work’s melodramatic roots but also provides a knowing contemporary gloss on both its virtues and its many flaws. But director Sarah Benson’s production, which premiered last year at the Soho Rep, also achieves that you-are-there feeling, engaging virtually all of the senses, that can only happen in live theater. (The show runs through March 15 at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center.)
The fourth wall is broken from the start. On a blank stage, we meet a black playwright (nimbly played by Austin Smith), who recounts his creative challenges in adapting a work by a white man set in an antebellum plantation with copious, unironic use of the N-word and broad racial stereotypes. Then we meet Boucicault (Haynes Thigpen), the Irish-born actor-playwright-impresario who achieved great fame in mid-19th-century American theater both for hits like The Octoroon but also for successfully lobbying Congress for a copyright law for dramas. (On stage, his brogue-talking avatar also makes a more dubious claim about being a pioneer of matinee performances — which did originate in New York, but several years before Boucicault’s arrival.) Naturally, he objects to the obscurity into which he’s sunk — and the liberties taken by his successor in remounting and altering his play.
Soon, our modern playwright is applying whiteface to portray the two central white roles, the plantation’s heroic heir, George, as well as his black-hatted and villainous rival, M’Closky, wearing a long black mustache ripe for the twisting. (“Whites don’t want to play racists,” he explains.) Both of his characters are vying for the title character, Zoe (affectingly played by Amber Gray), the illegitimate daughter of the plantation’s just-deceased owner who’s officially off-limits to our hero because she is one-eighth black.
And Boucicault then begins to apply red face makeup to portray both a Native American chief as well as a sunburned auctioneer. Even as the show settles into Boucicault’s overlapping story threads, we see and hear the clear guiding voice of modernity nudging us to view these characters and situations from our own Warby Parker lenses. Mary Wiseman brings daffy post-Kardashian inflections to her role as the local heiress who pines for George and offers his best chance of reclaiming the plantation. And Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand play two slave women with casual hilarity, speaking in a 21st-century vernacular that makes them seem familiar (one refers to her voodoo dolls as “collectibles”) while heightening the horror of their plight. “I know we’re slaves and everything,” counsels one, “but you are not your job.”
In addition to his other achievements, like using new-fangled innovations like cameras as ripped-from-the-headlines plot twists, Boucicault is credited with coining the term “mash up.” And Jacobs-Jenkins, working with Benson and a remarkable production team, seems to take that phrase as a jumping-off point here. His Octoroon is a blend of performance styles, from slapstick and mustache-twisting melodrama to politically charged minstrelry to a more sincere naturalism, as well as music choices, from hip-hop to an on-stage cellist (Lester St. Louis). The production itself deploys several centuries’ worth of devices, including trap doors, falling scenery, projections, smoke effects, and strobe lighting. In his day, Boucicault was renowned for his stage effects and Jacobs-Jenkins & Co. achieve their own coups de theatre to memorable effect. (I’ll never look at cottonballs in quite the same way again.) And just as Boucicault regularly appeared in his productions, Jacobs-Jenkins makes an unbilled entrance as an uproariously surreal, basket-wielding white rabbit who seems to have wandered in from a Lewis Carroll adaptation.
An Octoroon does what great theater is meant to do: It entertains even as it challenges you to think about just why you are enjoying yourself, and just what you are laughing at. And it leaves you with a sensation that you don’t feel every time you go to a show: goosebumps. Grade: A