REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
“An Octoroon,” playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ mashup of an 1859 racial melodrama is surely the wildest, most provocative and ambitious production now on stage in Philadelphia.
While the Wilma Theater may or may not find an audience for “An Octoroon” — though based on successful runs in New York City and standing ovations with multiple curtain calls opening night it seems it will — Jacobs-Jenkins has joined the foremost ranks of young playwrights who are taking traditional theater, stripping it down to its frame, turning it upside down and shaking it violently to see what might fall out on stage.
But what he’s attempting in “An Octoroon” is more ambitious than mere chaos — he wants to deconstruct the expectations, perceptions and attitudes of the largely white audiences that attend contemporary theater, to find a way to discuss race and “make you feel something” as he says directly to the audience near the end of his reimagined version of a 19th century fantasy about the lives of whites and blacks on a Louisiana plantation.
In what is clearly not-so-long-ago America a popular theme for sentimental plays and novels developed around a character known as “the tragic octoroon,” a term derived from the Greek octo or eight that referred to a person with one-eighth African American ancestry.
These stories followed a stereotyped form that included an octoroon protagonist, legally black and “passing for white” but considered a slave in that era’s slave-holding states; a noble white man or woman; a sneering villain; and a dramatic ending that could be rewritten as tragic or uplifting depending on the reactions of the audience.
The most successful of these was the melodrama “The Octoroon” by Irishman Dion Boucicault, which was a major success in theaters across the U.S. and abroad just prior to the Civil War. Jacobs-Jenkins (or BJJ as he calls his character in the play) decides to dissect Boucicault’s play, making the characters exchange roles, accents and skin color in a runaway racial burlesque that always seems to be on the verge of anarchy.
Even the closest theatrical comparison to this production would have to be a fantasy. Imagine if Irish playwright Brendan Behan and American poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) collaborated on a retelling of Boucicault’s lurid story on a Wilma stage nearly large enough for military maneuvers.
Even those two theatrical provocateurs would have been hard-pressed to match the humor and sharp edges of An Octoroon.
Instead, we have two actors portraying playwrights Dion Boucicault and BJJ, men living a century apart and both — symbolically? — missing their pants as they introduce themselves. Boucicault is a self-proclaimed “nonpolitical” artist who says he’s simply recording plantation life, but also the same playwright who created the now-iconic image of a woman tied to railroad tracks as a train bears down. He’s drunk and angry about being a forgotten genius.
And there’s BJJ, wry, vulnerable, frustrated with the limitations of his chosen medium, still working out concepts as he tries to explain why he would want to retell this antebellum story.
Only a director with nerves of steel could keep the verbal and racial fireworks in “An Octoroon” from setting the theater alight, a concept the playwright’s avatar BJJ actually considers at one point — though quick to add that the cast would save the audience members from the fire “one by one.”
Director Joanna Settle says the play “it hits very hard as a big, race-driven party, moving into all the most secret corners of race and gender” and it’s packed with enough provocative ideas, raw emotion and stereotypes to make its own sequel.
The Philly tribe/band ILL DOOTS provides a live, driving score with a mesmerizing mix of jazz, funk and hip hop as well as offering running comments on the action.
James IJames as BJJ and the white protagonist George Peyton is the omnipresent spark of this production, charging from scene to scene with astonishing energy, changing appearance and color like a chameleon. Ed Swidey as Boucicault, the pompous auctioneer LaFouche and the Native American Wahnotee from the original play is a perfect foil for BJJ’s barbs but matches him quip for quip.
Taysha Canales and Jaylene Clark Owens as the slaves Dido and Minnie provide much of the contemporary edge of humor to this retelling, swapping gossip with lines that might have been subcontracted to Tyler Perry.
Maggie Johnson as the simmering southern belle Dora does a sustained and very comic slow burn as her ordered world and hopes for marriage to the noble George slowly fall apart.
Campbell O’Hare as the octoroon Zoe is the still center of this hurricane, somehow keeping her composure and dignity intact in that antebellum world where economics and brutality combined to produce a horrible hybrid culture whose shoots and tendrils still entwine us.