An Octoroon at the National Theatre: Review
"What's an octoroon?"
This was the question on a lot of people's minds (and for those bold enough to wonder aloud, lips) in the foyer at the Dorfman.
- An octoroon is a person who is one-eighth black.
- The Octoroon is a nineteenth-century melodrama written by Dion Boucicault.
- An Octoroon is an astonishing piece of work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, about a black playwright who reworks Boucicault's original story.
The premise of the play appears simple; the production is most certainly not.
The playwright, BJJ, stands in a pair of striped boxers, enacting a conversation with his psychotherapist ("Just kidding. I don't have a therapist"). To combat his "low-grade depression", she suggests he adapt a text that he likes, by a writer he reveres, 'to re-connect with things'. And so, he does.
Boucicault's 1859 play is set on a Louisiana plantation, which, along with its slaves, is due to be sold as a result of its late owner Judge Peyton's gambling debts. Peyton's nephew and heir George arrives from Paris, and in his attempts to "save the plantation" he falls in love with Zoe, the eponymous octoroon, quashing the desires of shrill-voiced Southern Belle, Dora Sunnyside.
Before the plot begins, we meet Dion Boucicault himself, gleefully energetic and defensive of his contribution to theatre ("I brought you people copyrights", "I invented matinées, bitches!"). He goes on to play the character of the American Indian, Wahnotee, in redface.
The play's two-faced nature is amplified by other actors also maintaining dual roles. BJJ's 'assistant' is in blackface and BJJ himself in whiteface; he bemoans the fact that "all the white guys quit", and so he decides to play the slave-owners, hero George and villain M'Closky, himself. Slathering his face in bright white paint and donning, alternately, a blonde wig, and then a hat and moustache, Ken Nwosu is quite the dextrous chameleon. This is most impressive during the fight scenes!
Equally commendable are Vivian Oparah as Minnie and Emmanuella Cole as Dido, who play two likeable, sassy house slaves, whose upbeat 21st-century lingo is invigorating ("that bitch is dying cuz she's old as hell"). Unlike the caricature of Celeste Dodwell's farcical Dora, their conversations are very 'typical-day-in-the-office'. Minnie finds out that she is to be sold at auction and with a shrug, she says, “Yeah, I didn’t wake up thinking this was the way my day was going to go.”
Throughout the play, there are eery re-appearances of Br'er Rabbit, an embodiment of both traditional slave folklore and the 'white versions' of such tales. The lighting in some of these scenes (courtesy of Elliot Griggs) is tense: a combination of black-outs followed by hazy, fluorescent flashes, revealing the rabbit's whereabouts around the auditorium.
Alongside the lighting, Ned Bennet and Georgia Lowe have created an ingenious production that makes full use of the Dorfman. The stage is dismantled, characters are hoisted down from the ceiling, heck - there's even fire. Hip-hop music and beating drums intertwine with the live cellist (Kwesi Edman), who plays the gentle melodies by Theo Vidgen exquisitely. The spectacle is so gripping that I barely noticed the 2 hours 40 minutes running time.
The writing itself is ambitious too: Jacobs-Jenkins questions what 'blackness' means (why does nobody ever say 'white playwright'? What happened to all the 'Indian actors'?) and who is 'allowed' to play certain characters, and why. It's largely comedic, yet at times, it's incredibly profound. The play simultaneously respects Boucicault's original text and analyses it's pitfalls, and in doing so, complicates its own form: part-monologue, part-play, part tap-dancing bunny...
When I go to the theatre, I want to laugh, cry, or do both. I want to feel a connection, learn something, and come out onto the street still thinking, and feeling, as I make my way towards the train station. It doesn't happen all too often, but when it does, my God, does it make an impression. The talented Branden Jacobs-Jenkins knows this, for near the end of the play, after the projection of a sobering image, one of his characters utters the line:
“The point of this whole thing was to make you feel something."
And that is exactly what it does.
An Octoroon is running at the National Theatre until 18 July 2018.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND...
Before I left England in June 2016 to travel, I lived in London for two years, visiting the theatre around once a week. My family frequently took me to the theatre when I was growing up so my love for the stage has grown organically over the past twenty-five years. I follow closely the works of Headlong, Complicité, Kneehigh, Punchdrunk, Grandage and Branagh, and I am partial to a great musical.