A black man in whiteface. A white man in blackface. A white man in redface, dancing to Icona Pop’s 2013 summer hit “I Love It” and whooping like a Hollywood Native American stereotype.
From its outset, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning “An Octoroon” pushes the limits of comfort, dares the viewer to laugh, then asks why they did.
The play is a reimagining of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 production of “The Octoroon,” a critique of slavery in the United States, just two years before the nation decided to take the issue to war.
Boucicault was Irish. Jacobs-Jenkins is black. The play begins with Jacobs-Jenkins’ namesake character BJJ, clad only in underwear, applying whiteface and discussing the difficulties of re-rendering the production as he prepares to play the parts of both Boucicault’s white protagonist George and villain M’Closky. Boucicault’s character Playwright then arrives, drunk and in his undergarments, to discuss his original production. He laments time’s treatment of his fame while dabbing red paint on his face in preparation to play the part of Native American character Wahnotee.
Much of the production is an absurdist imagining of Boucicault’s story, in which George returns to his southern plantation home, only to fall in love with an octoroon (that is, one-eighth black) woman named Zoe, played by Carissa Meagher.
From the cartoonish demeanor of Southern belle Dora, played by Lexy Fridell, to Zoe’s melodramatic reveal of her heritage to George, to the modern-day repartee among slaves Minnie (Alexandra Barthel), Dido (Taylor Vaughan) and Grace (Tiffanie Mack), it’s hard to tack down a particular tone or genre throughout.
Perhaps most difficult to digest for the viewer are the consciously trope-ish portrayals of black and Native American characters by white men in crude face paint and the white knight and mustachioed villain portrayed by character BJJ in whiteface.
By intermission, these men and women have played so well to their characters’ absurdities that the viewer can barely take it. Something has to break open. It can’t keep going on like this, can it? It is a tension built deftly in this production under the direction of UCLA Professor Judith Moreland.
And break open it does.
One thing the production does well is engage the audience in the action. In particular, they drape the largely white crowd with ownership over the madness taking place during a slave auction. As the white knight George battles the villain M’Closky we consider that the two men are separated by nothing more than a mustache and cowboy hat (in fact, they are portrayed by the same man). In a society that sanctions a system as violent and inhumane as slavery, how can anyone participating in an auction be the good guy? What systemic violence today do we bless with our silence?
The two playwrights return to prepare for the final act, warning the audience of the machinations and manipulations commonly employed by theater to make viewers feel a certain way. They end the production by wielding those very machinations.
Discussing slavery in the American South, Boucicault once wrote, “I found the slaves, as a race, a happy, gentle, kindly treated population, and the restraints upon their liberty so slight as to be rarely perceptible.”
Jacobs-Jenkins takes the old playwright to task on his words in this hefty, impressive work. But he takes it a step further, acknowledging our modern-day blind spots and the lack of a much-needed vocabulary for modern racial discourse.
Instead of giving out the answers, he welcomes us to keep asking questions.
“An Octoroon” plays at Capital Stage in Sacramento through Oct. 1.