There's a chance you'll hate An Octoroon upon leaving Mixed Blood Theatre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play pokes into uneasy spaces about race, with a comedic slave auction and a display of lynching photographs.
Despite the way all of these jagged, messy, confounding moments stick in your craw, his point is this: While centuries of slavery may seem to lie in the distant past, they continue to warp America.
Jacobs-Jenkins has taken Dion Boucicault's 1859 play, The Octoroon, and pulled it into pieces. Boucicault's original was a sensation at the time, second only in popularity to Uncle Tom's Cabin within the slavery genre. Then it was promptly forgotten.
From this, he fashioned a play-within-a-play. William Hodgson plays Jacobs-Jenkins, who appears in whiteface because "all of the white actors quit."
The drama unfolds on the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana. The owner's death leaves the place in dire straits. Enter George, who returns from Paris to set things right. But he becomes smitten with Zoe, his uncle's octoroon daughter who is one-eighth black.
Meanwhile, an evil interloper has the paperwork to prove she's still a slave — and thus should be sold as one when the plantation goes into foreclosure.
Zoe proves a selfless soul, exonerating George of any guilt for not being able to keep her free, since she's been polluted by her blackness.
Wait.... What? Isn't this supposed to be an abolitionist play?
Jacobs-Jenkins further muddies the waters by giving the house slaves modern attitudes and vocabularies. One slave, for example, is described as "too ghetto."
The ladies bitch about each other and the work they must do, but they seem to accept their lot in life. A couple of them even conspire to be sold together to a riverboat captain so they can maintain their friendship.
Watching this seemingly unending parade of bad taste and confrontational ideas get the blood boiling. Those feelings are fueled by the talented cast, who make you feel every "bad" moment here, whether it's Ricardo Vazquez in blackface letting loose with a Negro spiritual on the auction block, or Megan Burns' Zoe talking about the black "poison" running through her veins.
So many uncomfortable feelings tend to overwhelm the watcher. Should I enjoy this? Should I be laughing? Turn my eyes away? Will they soon burn down the theater to intensify the action?
But An Octoroon would not be nearly as infuriating — or thought provoking — without the audience fully immersed in this horrifying world. We can't fast-forward past the lynching photos that are projected silently onstage. Only when you're once again outside the theater can the power of the play be fully appreciated.
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