Having admired Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recent play APPROPRIATE at the Signature, I was eager to see his new work, which is a very personal, sometimes surreal take on Dion Boucicault's 1859 hit play THE OCTOROON, OR LIFE IN LOUISIANA. THE OCTOROON contains the first published use of the word "mashup." In some ways, Jacobs-Jenkins' play is a dramatic mashup, layering two plays on top of each other. Jacobs-Jenkins begins with THE OCTOROON because it represents a 19th century view of race, albeit written by an Irishman for American consumption: slavery, miscegenation, even an Native-American. Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright writing at a time when live drama is no longer of interest to most people, is adapting the work of a playwright who was one of the most successful show business figures of his day. Boucicault wrote plays that were sensational -- the 19th century equivalent of blockbuster movies today. He also is important in the annals of history for developing the dramatic copyright that allowed playwrights to make a regular income from the production and publication of their plays. Because of that, serious writers could envision making a living from writing plays -- thus the renaissance of drama in the late 19th century. Jacobs-Jenkins is fascinated with THE OCTOROON as a past representation of race and slavery in America. He is also intrigued with Boucicault, the maker of thrilling, if now politically incorrect, theatre. In addition, Jacobs-Jenkins wants to look at how plays inspire strong emotions in their audiences: "We're just trying to make you feel something," his alter-ego says at one climactic moment.
That alter-ego, BJJ (the playwright's initials), given a virtuoso performance by Chris Myers, is having trouble feeling. Standing in his underwear in front of a microphone like a stand-up comic, he tells the audience of a visit to his analyst. BJJ is emotionally numb, feeling nothing about his life or his work. When he tells his analyst that he is mildly interested in THE OCTOROON, the doctor suggests that he try to adapt that work as a kind of therapy. Is this story true or something BJJ has made up? His first line in the play is, "I am a Black playwright," a designation that puzzles and irritates him. His version of THE OCTOROON is also a working out of what it means to him to be a Black playwright. Unfortunately, during the rehearsal process of his OCTOROON, the white actors, uncomfortable with the politically incorrect play, quit, so the playwright must play all the white characters. As the play is prepared for production, Dion Boucicault appears to play the role of the Indian, one of his famous character roles. So we will have THE OCTOROON with a Black man in whiteface playing two white men (hero and villain), a white man in blackface playing the other Black men, another white man playing a Native-American with bright red make-up that looks more like severe sunburn, and five women playing the female roles. Oh, there's a rabbit, played by a Black man (actually the playwright, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins), partly out of Lewis Carroll, partly out of African-American folklore made famous by Joel Chandler Harris, who occasionally appears, reminding us that we have indeed gone down the rabbit hole. A song at the very end of the production, sung in the darkness, underscores this notion.
What we get from this point on is a mashup. Sometimes the dialogue is right out of the Boucicault and played relatively straight, sometimes it is played as farce. The slave women (hilarious) sound like something out of a Tyler Perry creation. Walls fall forward, revealing other walls. The floor is covered with cotton balls. The final fight between hero and villain (played by the same man) is pure slapstick. Jacobs-Jenkins is making fun of THE OCTOROON'S racial politics and old-fashioned melodrama, but there is also affection for this old-fashioned piece of theatrical hokum. Without that affection and the complexity of Jacobs-Jenkins' approach, AN OCTOROON would become tiring very soon. It's a little too long, but totally absorbing.
The final scene gives us our comic slave women talking of their excitement at being sold to the captain of a ship. They're going to get out of the swamp and onto a ship. They don't know that the ship has blown up (one of Boucicault's spectacular stage effects -- he loved stage fires). There is no escape. Nor do they know why they feel emotionally numb -- BJJ couldn't avoid projecting his own feelings onto his characters.
Jacobs-Jenkins may be a Black playwright -- he is also a post-modern playwright giving us work wildly mixed in tone. Its mixture of disparate elements reminded me of Tom Stoppard's plays, but there's more passion in Jacobs-Jenkins' work. He is one of the most interesting of the younger generation of American playwrights.
Sarah Benson's production captures the kaleidoscopic nature of the work. It is effectively staged and perfectly paced. The eight actors couldn't be better. And the music (what's a melodrama without music?), mostly played by solo cello, is very effective.
This was my first visit to Soho Rep, a small theatre near Canal Street. I was delighted to see something one seldom sees at the performance of a drama these days -- a predominantly young audience!
This is another totally absorbing, important play from Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Don't miss it!
AN OCTOROON. Soho Rep. May 8, 2014