‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.

The play opens with Jacobs-Jenkins (Joseph Gibson) in his underwear, delivering a monologue about what it means to be a ‘black playwright’. “I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America,” he laments as he puts on whiteface. This is, of course, exactly what this show is doing. Case in point: During scene changes the cast dance to hip-hop as they dump piles of cotton all over the stage. Soon Gibson is joined onstage by the Playwright (Michael Mendelson), an analog for Boucicault himself, who puts on redface and a Cherokee headdress as he laments that he is not famous anymore.

Are you cringing? There’s also an actor in blackface. Are you cringing now? Good. You’re supposed to. Jacobs-Jenkins reaches deep into the dark past of American theater and pulls out a classic we’d rather forget. Cast in the light of the present we cannot help but cringe as we come face to face with the legacy of racism. It would be easy for An Octoroon to go off the rails, but directors Lava Alapai & Dámaso Rodríguez understand what the show is trying to do and turn everything up to 11. The antebellum characters within the play are sit-com caricatures, playing up laughs for an audience they never acknowledge.

Ayanna Berkshire as Br’er Rabbit, down by the riverside. Photo: Russell J Young

Zoe (Alex Ramirez de Cruz) is naïve and self-sacrificing to a fault; Dora (Kailey Rhodes) is shrill and shallow. Gibson plays the uptight and noble hero George as well as the literal mustache-twirling villain M’CLosky. These characters aren’t engrossing because the actors are bringing nuanced performances. There isn’t enough substance written for them. We look past the characters’ clichéd schemes and motivations (and many, many racist slurs) because the energy the actors bring to these performances overpower the audience. We only buy into them for how unbelievable they are. It’s more palatable. Also, the comic timing of the ensemble is spot on. For a show about slavery An Octoroon is… surprisingly funny. And because it’s funny it’s also a unnerving; there’s a tension between the subject matter and how it’s presented. That tension is what makes or breaks a production of this show and this production finds it.

And then we get to the fourth act (which comes without a break; the performance runs straight through with no intermissions), and the show does break down. Purposely so. Jacobs-Jenkins (the character) and The Playwright describe why both An Octoroon and The Octoroon don’t work structurally. A fourth act, the two explain, needs to overwhelm the audience. And sticking to the source material isn’t going to do it. So they describe what happens in the original story instead of performing it. Two actors onstage talking about a story instead of playing it out is a gamble, but Gibson and Mendelson work quickly and efficiently to build the momentum back up. The dynamic between the two actors is impressive. Gibson and Mendelson play two playwrights who couldn’t be more different, but really they are just two sides of the same coin. Men driven by their love of the craft of theater. Most of the act is one seamless monologue delivered by these two, each one in complete command of the lines without distracting from the other.

Andrea Vernae (left) and Josie Seid: slaves with a contemporary attitude. Photo: Russell J Young

And then the script does exactly what it sets out to do. It overwhelms the audience. Punches us in the emotional gut with the grim reality this farcical story is set over. And when the audience thinks it’s recovered, the directors overwhelm us with the climactic visuals of the end of the act.

From here An Octoroon really departs from its source material and the show ends its gaze on two slave women (played by Josie Seid and Andrea Vernae) who have been caught up in the various machinations of the white slave-owning gentry. When away from the eyes of the white owners these characters speak as if they’re just a couple of modern friends who just happen to be slaves. At one point one of them makes reference to going to a “slave mixer.” It’s like they’re in a different show entirely; a comedy sketch. But instead of distracting, their modern humor carries the meat of the show. This is how Jacobs-Jenkins turns a contrived and racist story from our past into a commentary on race now. Despite their flippant attitudes towards their situation, these slaves are also the only two characters “inside” the show who are keenly aware of the realities of institutional racism. Their function is most interesting when contrasted against Zoe, who is legally a slave even though she passes for white. Protected by her privilege, Zoe has no concept of the hardships these women face. Through their antics Seid and Vernae find the humanity of these women; indeed they are the only characters designed to elicit sympathy. Their constant joking only highlights their grim reality. It’s gallows humor. Sometimes resilience is all there is.

Alex Ramirez de Cruz as Zoe, the longsuffering title character. Photo: Russell J Young

An Octoroon brings up a lot of questions. Questions about how plays work. Questions about how identity and theatre collide. Questions about how much or little our country has changed. But it has no answers to give. Rather, it demands that we not forget these questions. That we remain unsettled, even if we’re laughing.

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An Octoroon continues through Oct. 1 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Also read Spotlight: rising actors Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes, Bobby Bermea’s profile of two young stars in An Octoroon.

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