Orange Tree Theatre
24 May 2017
In his time, Dion Boucicault was one of the best-known playwrights in Britain and the USA with hits such as London Assurance, The Shaughraun and The Colleen Bawn. One of the Irishman’s greatest successes was The Octoroon, first performed in 1859 in New York, but this is not a play you will normally see revived. Its depiction of black slaves on a Louisiana plantation, with prolific use of the N-word in a pejorative way, would be totally unacceptable to modern audiences. On top of this, only white actors could take the stage in the 19th century so those early performances involved blacking up.
American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has seized on these difficulties and turned them on their head to create an inventive, theatrical show that explores African-American heritage, racism, slavery and the conventions of melodrama. His free adaptation signals its deviation from the original text from the start, with the author, impishly played by Ken Nwosu, standing alone on the nearly bare stage in just his underpants and socks to an in-your-face rap soundtrack from Snoop Dogg. He is joined later by Boucicault, played with boisterous clowning by Kevin Trainor, and they set out the context for the adaptation we are about to see. Most importantly, it sets our minds at rest about why two of the black characters are played by a white actor in blackface and a native American by another white man in red face – balanced by Nwosu in whiteface as both the hero, George, and the villain, M’Closky, in Boucicault’s play. The shock value of this is mitigated by the theatrical nature of the production, with Nwosu and Trainor often breaking down the fourth wall to explain what is happening.
The heart of Boucicault’s play remains, telling of a young man who has returned to his family’s plantation as it faces financial collapse due to debts. He is torn between his love for penniless young Zoe and his duty to marry rich Southern belle, Dora. Despite the racism of the 1850s, the revelation that Zoe is an “octoroon” – a white person with one black great-grandparent – and therefore still considered a slave is presented as an injustice and no barrier to marriage for the dashing hero, George. The evil land-owner M’Closky, complete with tiny moustache and villainous laugh, sets out to thwart the family’s efforts to save the plantation so he can take ownership of it, including Zoe.
Jacobs-Jenkins cherry-picks lines from the original play but, along with halting the action to add context, he also extends two of the minor slave characters, Minnie and Dido. Like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they comment on how the main action affects them, bringing insights into the real lives of a slave beyond the 19th-century stereotypes. Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole are excellent – often funny, sometimes moving – as this bantering double act who, along with another slave Grace, played by Cassie Clare, are the only characters to break out of the melodrama’s conventional stereotypes.
The strong cast is completed by Alistair Toovey as slaves Pete and Paul in blackface, Iola Evans as sweet and noble Zoe, and Celeste Dodwell who is hilarious as the man-hungry Dora. Tautly directed by Ned Bennett, the production is lively and entertaining while exploring its darker subject matter and educating us about the African-American experience and the conventions of melodrama. It is given added energy and excitement by Elliot Griggs’ clever lighting design.
Recalling David Henry Hwang’s equally impressive Yellow Face about East Asian casting, An Octoroon is a glorious London debut for Jacobs-Jenkins whose only other play to reach the UK has been Neighbours at HighTide Festival – a play about a family of minstrel performers, again with blackface. His comedy-drama about office politics, Gloria, will show a different side to his writing at Hampstead Theatre from June, showing he is not just writing about “the African-American experience”. As An Octoroon demonstrates to great effect, he is interested in exploring the theatrical experience, entertaining us with its madcap energy while tackling uncomfortable and challenging issues.
Running to June 24, 2017
Photos: The Other Richard