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A CurtainUp Review
An Octoroon
By Jon Magaril

If you missed this last year at Soho Rep, that company's Sarah Benson is now having another go at it for The Theatre fora New Audience in its handsome Brooklyn venue: The Polonsky Shakespeare Center 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn.

It's again a limited run--trom 2/14/15; opening 2/26/15; closing 3/29/15. The Brooklyn Cast features some newcomers and reprises from standouts like Amber Gray: Maechi Aharanwa, Pascale Armand, Danielle Davenport, Amber Gray, Ian Lassiter, Austin Smith, Haynes Thigpen, and Mary Wiseman.

"I think you can get too worked up over small stuff. . . You can't be bringing your work home with you. If Zoe's lightskinned ass wanna go poison herself over some white man, then you need to let her do that and move on."—Minnie
Chris Myers, Danny Wolohan and Amber Gray (Photo: Pavel Antonov)

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' free adaptation of Dion Boucicault's 1859 slave melodrama The Octoroon features black-face, white-face, and red-face. It's in-your-face funny, un-PC provocative and, whenever Amber Grey takes the stage in the title role, heart-rending.

A smorgasbord of food-for-thought, it all goes down easy under Sarah Benson's super-fine direction. The style is prismatic as it illustrates the cultural history of racial representations. The playwright has apparently never met a meta-theatrical technique he refuses to use here. And most stick to the work like white on rice.

Jacobs-Jenkins gives the opening direct-address monologue to "Branden Jacobs-Jenkins," played by a subtly bravura Chris Myers: "I'm a black playwright. I don't know exactly what that means." Depressed, he's accepted his therapist's advice to adapt a work by his favorite playwright, Boucicault. But "all the white guys quit," so the therapist has recommended Jacobs-Jenkins play the roles himself.

As he applies white make-up, our poor narrator proves to be, in pure po-mo fashion, unreliable: "Just kidding. I don't have a therapist. You people [the audience] are my therapy."

Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be evoking, in spirit, the trauma of An Octoroon's troubled first production at PS 122. He took over when the original director departed, along with a white member of the cast. The Village Voice created a little tempest when it published the actor's e-mail, roundly criticizing Jacobs-Jenkins and the show.

Next up, Boucicault himself (the fantastic Danny Wolohan) appears, leading to a face-to-face take-down in which they simultaneously scream "Fuck you" over-and-over-and-over at each other. Dion gets his own monologue, touting his contributions to theater history as he prepares to play a Native-American.

The playwright's already torn down the figurative fourth wall. But at this point, Benson's production takes care of the first wall, when the back of Mimi Lien's set crashes down. Behind it, on a simple nondescript version of an 1800's Southern plantation, Dido, a slave played with a swell mix of class and sass by Marsha Stephanie Blake, sweeps up a large pile of cotton, or rather, little cotton balls.

The lack of verisimilitude gains more 'tude when Dido and fellow slave Minnie (the hilarious Jocelyn Bioh) realize they both know Trisha whom Minnie met "at a slave mixer over by the river before she dumped {Darnell] because you know she couldn't deal with the long-distance."

Jacobs-Jenkins admits in a script note: "I don't know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you." Benson finds a way to keep the heap of styles from clashing. The plot is over-ripe melodrama, rife with characters that mostly have one basic trait. In the playing though, they all acquire intriguing layers.

"Jacobs-Jenkins" in white-face plays the well-intentioned and highly refined George, the estate's new master. He's come back from abroad to run the plantation in the wake of his uncle Peyton's death. "Jacobs-Jenkins" also plays the white M'Closky, who has new-money but no aristocratic pedigree. He schemes not only to take over the estate but also to buy the beautiful Zoe, the Octoroon daughter of Peyton and newfound love of George.

Another doubling takes the offense out of Pete, a "House Nigger" who lords it over the other slaves. Ben Horner, in black-face, plays both Pete and the super-sweet young slave Paul. His murder, the first in dramatic history to be caught on camera and solved when the photo plate is found, propels the second half's plot.

The real Jacobs-Jenkins does actually appear in the non-speaking, fantastical role of Br'er Rabbit, the famous trickster with roots in African folklore. This gives the lie to "Jacobs-Jenkins" earlier protestations that he's not "totally deconstructing" such tales or, for that matter, "the race problem in America."

Just when spectacle should take over in An Octoroon's fiery climax, the two playwrights instead simply describe it to us. They report that Boucicault's goal was "to overwhelm your audience's senses to the end of building the truest illusion of reality."

Despite limited resources, especially when it comes to the appropriate number of white men, Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson nonetheless meet the same goal. By inundating us with a multitude of styles and racial stereotypes, they construct a true illusion of the slippery nature of race and its representations.

The live musical accompaniment, non-stop visual surprises, and unimpeachable performances ensure that the lofty goal never gets in the way of being spectacular fun.

Links to other reviews by Jacobs-Jenkins:

An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
directed by Sarah Benson
Cast: Shyko Amos, Jocelyn Bioh, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Amber Gray, Ben Horner, Chris Myers, Zoë Winters, and Danny Wolohan
Composer and Music Director: César Alvarez
Choreography by David Neumann
Set Design by Mimi Lien
Lighting Design by Matt Frey
Sound Design by Matt Tierney
Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere
Wig and Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Projection Design by Jeff Sugg
Fight Choreography by J. David Brimmer
Props by Noah Mease
Cellist: Lester St. Louis
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Running time: Two and a half hours including intermission
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, NYC (212) 941-8632 |
From 4/23/14 to 6/08/14
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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