In adapting Dion Boucicault’s pre-Civil War American melodrama classic, The Octoroon, for a 2014 audience, provocative African American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has turned it inside out and renamed it An Octoroon. Why not just present the play as it was originally written in 1859 and not go to all that trouble? Well, for starters, Boucicault’s original has all the merits and demerits of old-time melodrama and wouldn’t be accepted by a modern audience. It is probably too politically incorrect for our time, something that pre-Civil War audiences didn’t worry about, although its depiction of slavery in the Deep South was extremely popular in its day, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and did incite much discussion. Thirdly, while it is an American historical classic, the original has dated badly. Jacobs-Jenkins, whose second of three plays on race in our time, Appropriate, has just been seen at the Pershing Square Signature Center, uses Boucicault’s play as a jumping off point for a provocative debate on the state of race in America. In this world premiere at the Soho Rep., he may not have any answers but he has definitely stated the problem in startling terms.
The play begins with a 14-minute prologue in which a black actor announces that he is the authtor (BJJ) and that no one will let him forget that he is a black playwright. He then puts on white face in order to play slaveholder George Peyton in Boucicault’s play as he claims most of the white actors have quit. He is then joined by the Playwright (i.e. Boucicault) who puts on red make-up in order to play the Indian chief Wahnotee (which Boucicault did back in the 19th century) as this contemporary production couldn’t find any Indian actors in New York. After a shouting match between the two playwrights as to which of them is more melodramatic, BJJ leaves in defeat. The Assistant comes on stage and puts on black face make-up (apparently there weren’t enough black actors available) in order to play the role of the 72-year-old slave butler Pete. After the Playwright reminds us of all the things that he invented in the 19th century and bemoans the fact that he is virtually forgotten today (though his London Assurance and The Streets of New York are still revived occasionally), he stumbles off, and the play actually begins in earnest.
By now all of the racial lines have been crossed and the audience has to concentrate very hard to keep straight who is who as the visuals will not help (a black actor playing the white George, a white actor playing the black Pete, etc.). Though an abbreviated version of the 1859 original leaving out several characters and reducing the cast size from 22 to eight actors, An Octoroon remains fairly faithful to Boucicault’s melodramatic plot. However, it leaves out most of Act Five as did many 19th century productions, the play having been published in two versions. George Peyton, recently back from Paris, and heir to his aunt’s vast estate of Terrebonne in Louisiana, has been informed by her that she is bankrupt and will have to auction off the land and her beloved slaves in order to pay off her debts which we discover to have been caused by her overseers. George has fallen in love with Zoe, the natural child of his deceased uncle. However, although she returns his love, she reveals that she is an octoroon (one eighth black) and under Louisiana law forbidden to marry a white man. This has always been the most controversial scene in the play when she declares herself to be an “unclean thing – I’m an Octoroon!”
The evil M’Closky, formerly overseer of Terrebonne, and one of the reasons that the estate is in such bad shape, has developed a lust for Zoe and offers to purchase her and give her all she desires as he can’t marry her. When she repulses him, he vows his revenge. In his despair order over the fate of the estate, George proposes to Dora, the daughter of the wealthy neighboring landowner Sunnyside, but is unable to be convincing due to his love for Zoe. When M’Closky steals the letter which tells Mrs. Peyton that the $85,000 she is expecting from a bank in England is on its way, the Terrebonne estate and all its slaves are doomed to the auction block. However, despite the plotting of the evil M’Closky, George and the Indian Wahnotte as well as auctioneer Lafouche become wise to his nefarious ways.
Jacobs-Jenkins further blurs the color lines by giving the women slaves’ dialogue that makes them sound like contemporary sisters in the ‘hood discussing events on the estate. Their street smarts are all modern attitudes. To add more complications, the evil M’Closky and the tenderhearted George are played by the same actor, while Dora is costumed with a hem line that is representative of the mid-20th century. Through all of this, the play is accompanied by an onstage cellist Lester St. Louis, with original music by César Alvarez. Throughout the play, a giant rabbit covered up from head to foot representing Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit, from the same Louisiana region in which Boucicault did his research, silently passes through and exits.
Then at the beginning of the fourth act, BJJ (still dressed as George/M’Closky) and The Playwright (i.e. Boucicault) still dressed as the Indian Wahnotee step out of character and tell us that at this point 19th century plays offered the “sensation scene.” Unfortunately, the original we are told would be too melodramatic for contemporary taste, but the men have an idea how to do this for today. They then present three different versions of the scene, each more startling than the previous one. The plot of the play continues with a scene in which Myers in the dual role of George and M’Closky fight to the death, quite a feat both visually and physically. Zoe, the title character, decides to take her fate into her own hands. The final moments of the play plunge the audience into still another form of stagecraft, a veritable coup de theatre.
Artistic director Sarah Benson keeps this theatrical mélange moving swiftly along as well as preventing the different styles of theater and acting from clashing in this meta-melodrama. Chris Myers demonstrates great range initially playing BJJ (in his underwear), and then both the hero George and the villain M’Closky simultaneously, often in the same scene. The fourth act duel between the two is a remarkable piece of theater. Amber Gray (last seen as Hélène in the recent meta-musical of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) brings a remarkable regal dignity to the role of the tragic Zoe. White actor Ben Horner playing the elderly black butler Pete (shades of Uncle Tom) and the boy Paul is unsettling today in a way that that the author fully intends. Danny Wolohan brings pathos to the role of the playwright (i.e. Boucicault) as well as laconic dignity to the Indian chief.
As the emotionally over-the-top heiress Dora, Zoë Winters is riotous as an escapee from a contemporary soap opera. Marsha Stephanie Blake, Shyko Amos and Jocelyn Bioh are hilarious as the three slave women gossips who give us the low down on life on the plantation from the slave point of view while ankle deep in cotton balls. As author Jacobs-Jenkins tells us in a footnote to the published text, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”
Mimi Lien’s setting alternates between a black box theater and a white box theater in the most startling of ways and the minimalist props by Noah Mease add to the sense that this is a contemporary drama, rather than historical. The costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are a mash-up of various styles, continuing the feeling that the play is bridging centuries. The prominent wigs and make-up design are by Cookie Jordan. Matt Frey’s lighting is often as startling as the play itself.
Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ deconstruction and reconstruction of The Octoroon succeeds in doing for today’s audience what Dion Boucicault’s 1859 original must have done for a 19th century audience. Not only is An Octoroon a meta-melodrama but also a provocative modern take on the history of race in America. Sarah Benson, entirely in tune with the playwright’s intentions, makes this a theatrical experience that you will long remember. It may not make you change your mind about race, but it certainly dramatizes the issue in ways you have not seen before.
An Octoroon (extended through June 8, 2014)
Soho Rep., 46 Walker Street, between Church and Broadway, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission