Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

An Octoroon - "Nothing is but what is not."

An Octoroon

How do deal with racism in the United States? How does one accept the fact that Barak Obama was the first African-American to serve as U.S. President - for eight year, two full terms, yet he received not an ounce of support from Republicans under Mitch McConnell's "leadership" guised as partisanship. Actually a more politically correct term for racism? And how to write a play about American's very foundation based upon racism (slavery) and genocide (First Nations) without offending everyone in the process?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Canadian premiere provides us with "An Octoroon," a reworked 1859 melodrama by Dion Boucicault. In this production, everyone is literally two-faced. Blacks wear white-face; whites wear black and red-face, and plantation black female slaves suddenly talk like tough contemporary street types while the red-faced auctioneer apparently has a sun allergy.

The action centers around George, a Terrebonne plantation owner (André Sills) in Louisiana who falls in love with a slave, Zoe (Vanessa Sears), who is one eighth black; therefore an Octoroon.

André Sills first appears on the dark, minimalist stage, clad only in underwear, his massive body on display. "Hi everyone. I'm a 'Black playwright'," he begins congenially with an extended conversation with the audience while eventually applying his white face. He plays the playwright BJJ, George who loves Zoe, the light-skinned Octoroon, and also M'Closkey the villain. For the latter, half of his body is dressed like George, half like M'Closkey including half a moustache and as each side faces the audience, he performs alternate characters. Sills is amazing at this, and he carries the show.

Patrick McManus also plays multiple roles including Wahnotee, the Native American, the cranky, drunken 19th-century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault and Lafouche the sun-burned auctioneer. We watch him apply red-face while making despairing remarks about theatre today.

Yet another character, the Assistant (Ryan Cunningham) who appears to be Native American, wears black-face, and the effect of all three characters painted as such tends to highlight the racist ideologies and stereotypes from Uncle Tom's Cabin to today.

Diana Donnely plays Dora, an affected Southern belle who lusts for the blonde-haired George, but George is infatuated by Zoe who tells him that it's impossible because of her colour.

The female house servants Starr Dominique (Grace) and Kiera Sangster (Minnie) are often hilarious but disturbed when they learn that they will be auctioned. The audience is presented with a brochure entitled "Slaves At Sale By Lafouche & Co," listing and describing each slave.

Samantha Walkes plays Captain Ratts who gets in a bidding war at the auction and Br'er Rabbit, a central figure in Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States, a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, and who saunters in and out of scenes.

My take was that the over-the-top melodramatic acting sometimes sagged under Peter Hinton's direction, and I found myself wanting more short conversational interludes between Sills and the audience to keep things sharp.

During the action, the villain kills off one of two servants sent to retrieve an important letter that will allay worries about selling the plantation, but a camera lens captures his deed and saves the day. Hinton employs the camera lens motif again through a ship's porthole near the end, but the emotional payoff for me was a camera projection that brought back unsettling memories from long ago when I was in University and one night discovered two large picture books in the library. They portrayed horrifying events that I had never seen before, picture after picture of first - lynched blacks dangling from ropes and then - lynched Jews. Those awful images were burned into me 50 years ago, and I can never forget them. In "An Octoroon," Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ensures that we will not forget those images nor the racism that inspired them.

This is a powerful and successful play given its themes. Sills is well worth watching alone. With a little less melodrama and a few more interspersed conversations with the audience, it might have been superb.

An Octoroon is at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 14. See for details.

Behind the Scenes

Program Notes

Director's Notes By Peter Hinton

In modern theatrical practice, we tend to use the word "melodrama" to describe an unbelievable or outrageous event that conveys a disproportionally unbalanced moral point of view. And we almost always use the term "melodramatic" to judge the unbelievability of this event, in opposition to something higher, more ambiguous and complicated that we call "reality". I have spent a lot of time in rehearsal halls saying that we must avoid this tone, or action, or sentiment, because it would be just too melodramatic.

Realism has been the measure for truth and quality in the theatre for most of my professional life - and so it is with great curiosity that I enter the high-octane and revisionist melodrama of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon. Here is a play that unabashedly embraces melodrama, not as a judgment or simply as a style worthy of mocking (most of our modern encounters with melodrama are in the form of parody), and applies the ideas of nineteenth-century theatre practice to very twenty-first-century ideas and problems.

An Octooron Melodrama has its roots in the synthesis of music and drama, with tone varying from high tragedy to low comedy. It includes elements of "sensation" to heighten and magnify feeling and to explore the spectacle between complex ideas and popular entertainment. If theatre forms reflect the worlds in which they are popularized, it is interesting to me how the "unbelievable, outrageous events" of our current times seem so well suited to the scrutiny and scale of melodrama. As the play says, "the point of this whole thing was to make you feel something."

It seems to me, especially in theatre, realism has its limits; but what the theatre has and our current world demands is imagination - not to escape realities, but to encounter them.

Two Authors in Search of a Melodrama By Jennifer Buckley

You could have stayed home. There, you could have watched anything - the news, a game, a movie, YouTube clips - on internet-connected devices you likely own. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins knows that these devices can convey almost any kind of cultural product or experience more easily than theatre can. Two characters in An Octoroon know it, too. BJJ, who shares the author's initials and profession, is depressed, in part because "the theatre is no longer a place of novelty." The Playwright, a resurrected and profanity-prone version of the nineteenth-century dramatist and actor-manager Dion Boucicault, is aghast at the modern theatre's diminished audiences, resources, and ambition. During his heyday, he huffily informs BJ], the toilets at his Winter Garden Theatre in New York were "nicer than this place." Even before the 1859 premiere of The Octoroon, Boucicault was hailed as a master of melodrama. That spectacular genre - long on thrills and tears, short on nuance - emerged in post-revolutionary France and dominated stages on both sides of the Atlantic for the next century and more.

At the time when Boucicault was an international star, theatre was a mass medium. Large audiences paid to have their eyes dazzled and heartstrings tugged by melodramas whose stock characters, sensational visual effects, and stirring tunes provoked a carefully structured series of emotional responses. Big London houses like Drury Lane could hold more than 3000 spectators; the Adelphi, where Boucicault took his Octoroon in 1861, sat 1500. Now, BJJ tells us, none of his actor friends want to perform in his production of Boucicault's Octoroon because "they all felt it was too 'melodramatic.'"

They would also have to play overt racists. That's the real problem for the actors the self-described "black playwright" BJJ initially cast to play "the white guy roles." Boucicault's play is set on an insolvent Louisiana plantation whose inheritor, George Peyton, must sell the property - including the enslaved people who live and work there. Among those taken to the auction block is Zoe, whom the late Judge Peyton had fathered with an enslaved woman but raised as a "lady." So light-skinned is Zoe that she must tell the besotted George she is "an unclean thing - forbidden by the laws" banning miscegenation and thus unable to marry him.

That is one of many objectionable lines Jacobs-Jenkins retains in his adaptation of Boucicault's play. Take note of your reaction when you hear it spoken here and now, in this space and this historical moment, when delivered by a woman of colour. The social and political contexts informing the original audience's responses were surely on Boucicault's mind when he cast his white wife, Agnes Robertson, as the heroine. So were the box-office receipts, which he would have jeopardized by casting an actress with African ancestors as a white man's beloved in a country on the brink of a civil war over slavery. (Four days before The Octoroon premiered in New York, the abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Virginia for attempting to lead a slave uprising.) Casting actors of colour was unthinkable for Boucicault in a time when virulent racism prevented Ira Aldridge, the globally renowned African-American actor, from making a living in the nation where he was born free. In Boucicault's Octoroon productions, as in those of George L. Aiken's even more popular melodrama Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), white actors played the enslaved people. All but Robertson wore blackface makeup. The "Indian" Wahnotee was acted by Boucicault himself - in red-face, of course.

Jacobs-Jenkins' version of Boucicault does the same, while the put-upon Assistant dons blackface. Short on "white guys," BJJ furiously applies whiteface makeup before assuming the roles of the stereotypical hero George and the equally stereotypical villain M'Closkey. Because Jacobs-Jenkins allows us to see BJJ the Playwright, and the Assistant putting on their roles, he stops us from trying to see past or through the actors' or the characters' colour(s). What BJJ frames as the result of a casting crisis turns out to be central to the broader critique of race relations performed in An Octoroon, written during what some in the US fancied a "post-racial era." We cannot not see race while watching this play. We cannot declare ourselves colour-blind and get away with it. Jacobs-Jenkins marshals the resources of theatres past and present to make us see how our cultures have used and do use colour to construct race. He makes us witness the brutal effects of white supremacy: racism kills, onstage and off, in Boucicault's age and in ours. Because melodrama makes moral debates so starkly visible - personifying good and evil and staging a tense battle between them - both Jacobs-Jenkins and his alter ego BJJ are willing to test whether this maligned genre is more capable than its modern successors of provoking audience members into confronting slavery's legacy.

Melodrama is not the only mode in An Octoroon, nor does every scene derive directly from Boucicault's play. Interpolated into BJJ's production are conversations between the enslaved Dido, Minnie and Grace. The historical gap between the antebellum situations Melodrama is not the only mode in An Octoroon, nor does every scene derive directly from Boucicault's play. Interpolated into BJJ's production are conversations between the enslaved Dido, Minnie and Grace. The historical gap between the antebellum situations the women describe - a runaway plot, Judge Peyton's habit of raping slaves - and the very contemporary vernacular they use to describe them will likely make you laugh - and then recoil at your own laughter. (Jacobs-Jenkins' stage directions justify his choice of idiom: "I don't know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.") In addition to satirical comedy, An Octoroon draws upon a range of narrative and theatrical genres. Bre'r Rabbit wanders out of African-American folklore and onto the stage. Those twentieth-century masters of meta-theatre, Luigi Pirandello and Bertolt Brecht, may well be lurking in the wings.

Yet for all the post-postmodern genre-mixing, the play and Jacob-Jenkins' statements about it indicate a serious interest in melodrama. It may be unfashionable, but it will "make you feel something," as the Assistant explains. It may also impel you to think about why you feel a certain way. Melodrama does not permit hidden depths: everything is brought to the surface, including received ideas and unpleasant emotions many would rather submerge. That laughter, those gasps, those tears - where are they coming from? What use could they be to us, and to the culture we consume and create?

The rigour with which Jacobs-Jenkins interrogates theatre's capacity to make us feel and think makes An Octoroon especially suitable for the Shaw Festival. Bernard Shaw was thoroughly familiar with melodrama, and with Boucicault's plays in particular. Critics cite his advocacy of "dramatic realism" as a cause for the decline of melodrama's theatrical and critical fortunes. (Badmouthed by modern playwrights, melodrama migrated to Hollywood, where it still reigns supreme.) But Shaw understood the genre's popularity and its power, and scholars have long noted that he employed its techniques in his plays.

Melodrama survived generations of skeptics who doubted it could engage important cultural debates. Jacobs-Jenkins, who encountered revisionist scholarship on the genre in graduate school, knows it could and can. There's a booming field of study that posits melodrama as a still-dominant expressive form - one that enables us to emotionally wrestle with our ideas about good and evil, about right and wrong, about power and those who abuse or lack it. By using an outdated racist play to stage that battle for our contemplation, Jacobs-Jenkins makes a convincing claim for theatre's relevance in this mass-mediated era. Theatre may no longer be a "place of novelty." But it can be a place where we gather to reckon with the world created onstage - and the one we create outside its doors.

Dr Jennifer Buckley teaches drama in the English department at the University of Iowa. Her current book project is Beyond text: Theater and Performance in Print.

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