BWW Review: AN OCTOROON at SHAW FESTIVAL
Experimental Take on 19th Century Melodrama Mostly Succeeds
Pushing the limits of the Shaw Festival's mission, an edgy slave story from a different era is being presented in The Royal George Theatre. By the looks of it, Shaw's usual audiences are in for an eye opener. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (aka BJJ) has taken us on his own personal journey of frustrated playwright who takes the advice of his psychologist and writes a play as an homage to an obscure playwright Dion Boucicault. Boucicault's 1859 played entitled "The Octoroon" has been transformed by BJJ into "An Octoroon." In doing so, BJJ creates a prologue of his own invention describing his experiences in producing the original work, where no white actors would take on a the roles of evil white plantation and slave owners. "The Octoroon" tells the story of a plantation that is on the brink of being sold, the original owner's sexual relations with a slave that produces an octoroon ( one who possesses 1/8 Negro blood), the threat of new found love, misogyny and the overall treatment of slaves.
BJJ's work is transformative in that some of the black characters are played by white actors in black face while some of the white characters are played by black characters in "white face," thus blurring all stereotypical preconceived notions. BJJ includes himself in the play and is brilliantly played by African-American Andre Sills. He explains his story in the prologue and then becomes 2 white characters--the present plantation owner George and the villain M'Closky.
The 5 acts that follow are mostly played out as the original play, but BJJ implies that no one really knows how slaves spoke, so his take on the language in his script often adopts a 21st Century lingo. Music by Ryan deSouza often morphs from hip hop to Victoriana to plantation music. What reads out on paper as archaic melodrama in actuality is surprising realistic, thankfully to the credit of Director Peter Hinton. Hinton understands the melodrama genre, but instead of making fun of it, employs it's conventions and the end result of twirling mustaches, near fainting, and guttural cries of anguish oddly seem appropriate for the gritty details of the story. BJJ's use of coarse language, in addition to the scripts use of the N- word, prove that this play is not for the faint of heart. But somehow the inherent strength of the words, no matter how pejorative, works to cement the emotions the characters feel.
The drama on plantation life is well served by the melodramatic genre, as the evils are heightened by the class differences. Diana Donnelly embodies the wealthy white woman, whose family's money could save the plantation. Her airs and indignation towards the slaves was palpable. Meanwhile, the Indian presence in Louisiana serves as a secondary plot, where an Indian is suspected of killing a slave.
Patrick McManus plays multiple roles, including the Indian Wahnotee and the slave auctioneer LaFouche. But his most perplexing role was that of "playwright," suggesting Boucicault himself. In the prologue he meets BJJ, both men clad in their underwear, feuding and applying appropriate face paint to prepare for the play.
Kiera Sangster as Minnie and Lisa Berry as Dido are the two house slaves and they provide much of the heart of the slave life. These two ladies shine, full of sass and angst. Ryan Cunningham as Pete shows desperation and indentured servitude as the old slave Pete.
Vanessa Sears is Zoe, the so called octoroon who was raised as a white "lady." Ms. Sears fully embodies the young woman torn between love for a white man and her possible fate of being found part Negro and placed up for sale with the other plantation slaves. Watching the chained slaves preparing to stand on the auction block was eerie and cleverly staged, aided by Bonnie Beecher's evocative lighting.
Mr. Sills rise to the challenge of playing 3 roles and BJJ cleverly writes a scene where he must play the villain and the hero in conversation, which is helped by a split costume of half black and half white. Sills gives a tour de force performance as he literally struggles and fights with himself, as the two men physically duke it out.
In deference to any good plantation story, the character of Br'er rabbit makes occasional appearances, giving the audience that added notion that this type of story was most definitely based in reality, as the rabbit appears to be taking in the drama, to be retold later.
The pinnacle of the story hinges upon a photograph that proves who the real slave killer may be. Here is where the author BJJ doesn't give the audience enough credit. BJJ explains that audiences of 1859 would find the entire concept of photographic evidence new and shocking, but he thinks today's audience require a more dramatic climax- so he breaks the fourth wall, jumps out of character, and cues the audience to his notions. The story seemed riveting enough to me that this seemed more like pandering than important dramatic license.
Jacobs-Jenkins' take on "The Octoroon" gives modern audiences a glimpse into theatricality of a long ago era, yet manages to tell it's new story with deference to the original. That story, though probably not unique, still serves to shed light on a part of American history that many hope to forget- as racial struggles in the US are still at the forefront of the daily news.
AN OCTOROON plays at the Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake through October 14, 2017. Contact shawfest.com for more information.