‘An Octoroon’ meta-review: theatrical therapy

Taking a playwright off the stage and putting him on the couch

by MARIA CHOBAN

Editor’s note: After watching Artists Repertory Theatre’s new production of An Octoroon, in which playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins begins with an imaginary conversation with his shrink, we wondered what it might have sounded like if the conversation between psychiatrist and playwright had continued. We imagine it might have gone something like this.

“THERAPIST”:
I think you lost your nerve.

“BJJ”:
Really? Why? Because I went all meta ?

“THERAPIST”:
Having  the playwright appear on stage and talk about writing his play is pretty meta.

“BJJ”:
It distances the audience from the story and allows them to protect themselves emotionally by reminding them that it’s all a fictional construct. I mean, it worked for the Oregon ArtsWatch reviewer.

“THERAPIST”:
And bringing in that tired old device of supplying exposition by having someone talk to a therapist.

“BJJ”:
Like we’re doing right now.

“THERAPIST”:
Yup. You think you were going meta by having a character named BJJ onstage in a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins? I’m gonna go meta on your meta! Now I’m putting both of us in quotes — in my 2017 story about your 2014 play about the original 1859 play (The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault) based on the original 1856 book (The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reid).

“BJJ”:
So you’re saying that going meta is OK?

“THERAPIST”:
Can be. It’s like any other dramatic or literary device. It depends on how well you do it. Whether or not it connects.

“BJJ”:
Well, did it?

“THERAPIST”:
Not really. But your opening monologue sure did.

Joseph Gibson as BJJ in Artists Repertory Theater’s ‘An Octoroon’
Photo: Russell J. Young.

“BJJ”:
You liked my monologue?

“THERAPIST”:
I liked how you, a black playwright, immediately made me, a white female, feel the low grade depression you were dealing with. You turned it into a universal that connected . . . At least with me.

 

THERAPIST:
What makes you happy?

BJJ:
I don’t know.

THERAPIST:
Really? Nothing makes you happy?

BJJ:
Not really.

THERAPIST:
What about work? Doesn’t the theater make you happy?

BJJ:
I mean . . . Some of it. Not all of it.

THERAPIST:
So you’re not excited about your work?

BJJ:
I mean I’m not not excited.

 

“THERAPIST”:
Too bad that —

“BJJ”:
What?

“THERAPIST”:
Well, it’s not your fault.

“BJJ”:
What? What do you mean? I’m the author, it’s gotta be my fault.

ARTISTS REP 90 seconds from Artists Repertory Theatre on Vimeo.

“THERAPIST”:
No, I mean this production at Artists Rep. They play you in that monologue like the caricatures in The Octoroon that you lampoon, instead of playing BJJ straight. They missed the whole point of your monologue — that you are just as human and mundane as anyone:

BJJ:
God forbid any actor of color not jump at the chance
To play an offensive bag of garbage so far from his own life
but which some idiot critic or marketing intern is going to
describe as a gritty truthful portrayal of “The Black Experience in America.”

“BJJ”:
So you thought this production sucked.

“THERAPIST”:
Not entirely. Ayanna Berkshire playing Grace and your re-write of that character were wicked angry. And funny. A great marriage of writing with acting; and co-directing by Lava Alapai and Dámaso Rodríguez. I can still see Grace’s opening entrance . . . Carrying those heavy pails . . . willful . . . tired . . . pregnant . . . ready to explode . . ..

But you lost me in those protracted scenes from that old melodrama, despite Artists Rep’s great direction and costumes and lighting and physical acting from Kailey Rhodes and John San Nicolas in particular.

You know, I think I was expecting to experience more of the wry, funny, uncomfortable feelings of the pre-show comic sketches Artists Rep piped in. Chris Rock’s voice . . . “Black people dominate sports in the United States. We’re 10 percent of the population, we’re 90 percent of the Final Four.” What great send ups right through your monologue.

“BJJ”
So what’s the problem then?

“THERAPIST”:
Which one? There are so many….

“BJJ”:
Let’s start with my script, since this session is about me. How did I lose you after the opener? What do you mean I lost my nerve?

“THERAPIST”:
First of all, I suggested adapting the play, not copy/pasting half of it into your play.

“BJJ”:
You suggested I try to connect with things I have positive feelings for. And I connected with Dion Boucicault’s melodrama The Octoroon.

“THERAPIST”:
You Milli Vanilli’d it.

“BJJ”:
Whaaaaaaa?

“THERAPIST”:
At least half of your adaptation is Boucicault’s original! So you change one article in the title and you think you’re going meta on Boucicault? Besides, who cares? It’s a half-baked melodrama from some dead white Irish playwright no one remembers —

“BJJ”:
— who was the best known playwright in his day! I am a black playwright trying to matter and
I.
Feel.
Invisible!

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background), in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s ‘An Octoroon,’ playing through Oct. 1 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theater. Photo: Russell J. Young.

“THERAPIST”:
Like your dream in your monologue?

“BJJ”:
You didn’t like that?

“THERAPIST”:
I loved it. Bees swarm, cover your shape; asphyxiate you, fly away and poof! You’re not there. And you are the bees. What can this mean?

“BJJ”:
This isn’t why I came to you.

“THERAPIST”:
Then you go and erase yourself and your voice from the rest of your own adaptation!

“BJJ”:
It was about the frame. Satirizing old racist stereotypes—

“THERAPIST”:
It was about losing your nerve! You wrote the whole story in your opening monologue; wanting to just connect with us about Your Self without having to use farm animals as characters, or at least to not be exoticized if you did. You said you didn’t want to disappear yourself, like you dreamed with the bees. And then, in the rest of the play, you went and hid behind an exotic 150 year old melodrama. Your frame.

Ayanna Berkshire, Andrea Vernae, Jocelyn Seid in ‘An Octoroon.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

“BJJ”:
I re-wrote Grace and Dido and Minnie, turned Minnie and Dido into modern stereotypes of sassy African American women to mirror the 19th century stereotypes.

“THERAPIST”:
You shoulda re-written more.

“BJJ”:
Okay, Shakespeare, how?

“THERAPIST”:
I’m not a playwright. But I can tell you what I didn’t need. Once I got how you skewered those melodrama characters and that racist sensibility in the first minute or so, I didn’t need an hour more of that. I just wanted more you and less Boucicault!

(takes a breath) It’s okay. You’re young. This is only your second play.

“BJJ”:
Maybe you need to write your own play!

“THERAPIST”:
No! Maybe you need to write your own play! What you did in that brilliant opening monologue and how you re-wrote Grace shows that you can write real people. People who just have to get through their shitty days or, God forbid, lives. Stop hiding behind stereotyped characters and trendy meta frames. And stop whining about yourself. Go write more of these real people you draw so convincingly.

“BJJ”:
If I stop whining about myself, you’re out of a job.

“THERAPIST”:
And your session’s over.

An Octoroon continues through Oct. 1 on the Alder Stage at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.
Also read Spotlight: rising actors Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes, Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch profile of two young stars in An Octoroon.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

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