Review of An Octoroon at Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre is making an exceptionally strong statement by presenting Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon as the inaugural production in their newly renovated space. This play epitomizes the company’s commitment to socially engaged and artistically bold new work. An Octoroon begins by establishing itself as a piece with multiple creative layers. The play takes its title as well as a large portion of its plot from The Octoroon (1859): a melodrama written by Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault. Boucicault’s original focuses on a romance between a white man, George, who has just returned from France to run his uncle’s Louisiana plantation, and his uncle’s illegitimate, mixed-race daughter, Zoe. Jacobs-Jenkins’s adaptation maintains this plot but decentralizes it in favor of exploring a multitude of characters. This choice has the effect of both projecting a much broader story about the historical construction of racist ideology in America and giving more attention to a trio of slave women (played by Jasmine Hughes, Chaz Hodges, and Jamila Anderson).

An Octoroon begins with a fictionalized version of Jacobs-Jenkins (called, according to the program, BJJ and played by William Hodgson) explaining his feelings of alienation, his encounters with racism in the theatrical community, and his interest in the plays of Dion Boucicault. Boucicault (played by Jon Hegge) then joins BJJ onstage. After each writer has changed the color of his skin using makeup (in order to portray, respectively, a white man and a Native American), the scene changes from a contemporary meta-theatrical space into the nineteenth-century plantation of Boucicault’s original text. Using live piano music, an overwrought style of acting, and antiquated language, this portion of the play remains largely faithful to melodramatic conventions. The employment of whiteface, redface, and blackface (by Ricardo Vazquez, who plays Boucicault’s assistant in the opening section) also harkens back to nineteenth-century theatrical traditions. By contrast, the trio of female slaves uses African-American Vernacular English. This choice, in addition to providing a humorous juxtaposition to the other characters’ dialogue, powerfully reflects the difficulty for both historians and playwrights of faithfully representing the speech of slaves denied the ability to leave records of themselves.

Late in the second act, the division between the two frameworks established at the beginning of the play (the meta-theatrical world and that of the plantation story) breaks down. BJJ and Boucicault both step out of the melodrama in order to explain a convention of that theatrical mode: the sensation scene. This practice aims to dazzle audiences with an overwhelming spectacle. The Octoroon, explain BJJ and Boucicault, hinged its sensation scene on the use of then-novel photographic technology. Understanding that this plot twist will no longer produce the desired effect, BJJ orchestrates a scene that confronts its audience with an unflinching image of racial trauma. This moment, while taking seriously the capacity of the melodramatic sensation scene to appeal to a heightened emotional register, uses it to soberly invoke a historical horror rather than a grandiose novelty or spectacle. The scene draws a powerful connection between the present, the past, and theatrical history that unifies all the play’s dimensions.

This production boasts some very strong performances. Hodgson switches dexterously between multiple characters not only within the melodrama but also between it and the meta-theatrical world. His intensity drives the play and helps to negotiate amongst its various registers. Hodges, Anderson, and Hughes all have strong comedic talent, and their performances, in addition to their dialogue, both show their characters’ familiarity with each other and set them apart in their own theatrical milieu. Ricardo Vazquez mines his blackface role for maximum uncomfortable laughter. In the fight scenes, Nataki Garrett’s staging (along with Annie Enneking’s choreography) proves especially clear and engaging. The initial transition from the meta-theatrical world to the melodramatic one, however, does not transpire with sufficient precision. Overall, this production offers its audience a thought-provoking, haunting, and entertaining experience.

An Octoroon runs at Mixed Blood Theatre through November 15.

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