BWW Review: AN OCTOROON, Orange Tree Theatre

BWW Review: AN OCTOROON, Orange Tree Theatre

BWW Review: AN OCTOROON, Orange Tree TheatreAn Octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. In 1850s Louisiana, that meant they are automatically unclean and, ultimately, a slave. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins radically reimagines Dion Boucicault's 1859 play based upon a tragic and rather melodramatic love story between white plantation owner George and his uncle's illegitimate daughter Zoe. Entwined in this is the apparent financial ruin of the plantation, which leads to a series of racially motivated violent events.

This story is the basis for a production that features a playwright in therapy, a tap-dancing rabbit and actors painting their faces. This is a play where nothing is black and white; racial injustice and challenges of stereotypes make this a fresh and thought-provoking production, examining the uniquely American experience of race and colour. Boucicault's play capitalised on the tensions regarding slavery of the time and Jacobs-Jenkins confronts how those tensions endure.

There is no option of being blind to colour here. By having a black actor in white face and white actors in black and redface, Jacobs-Jenkins forces the audience to address uncomfortable issues about race, identity and what we are allowed to say and not to say.

This is a fast-paced and occasionally chaotic play. Director Ned Bennett, returning to the Orange Tree after the brilliant Pomona, ensures the audience has no idea what is coming next. House lights come up suddenly, the cast begin to deconstruct the floor of the theatre, actors scramble up and down from the gallery of the theatre and seat themselves among the audience.

As interesting and captivating as this is, it occasionally leads to confusion, as the chaotic elements are, sometimes, just too disordered. Seating members of the cast in the audience also challenges the acoustics of the theatre and sometimes is too quiet.

In the opening scene, Ken Nwosu plays the role of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (BJJ) himself. He appears in his underwear and socks, recalling a possibly fictional conversation with his therapist. He is natural, funny and completely engaging.

Nwosu swtiches between three roles; that of the frustrated playwright (his strongest part), a gentle Southern plantation owner George and a murderous slaveowner M'Closky. Each character has their own wigs, hats and moustaches. Nwosu starts by switching the costumes deftly, but as the speed ramps up, begins to forget M'Closky's moustache or puts it on askew, which adds to the farce of the scenes. A fight scene between the two men is both manically funny and cleverly executed.

Among a very strong cast, one of the highlights of the production is the dialogue between slaves Minnie (Vivian Oparah) and Dido (Emanuella Cole), showcasing smart mouths and some very modern parlance. Oparah is particularly sharp and funny, with a beautifully natural pace and rhythm. Cole's subtle and nuanced performance, particularly in the final scene, is perfectly judged.

Celeste Dodwell has great fun with the role of heiress Dora. In her increasing desperation to attract the attention of George she is affected, totally over the top and occasionally hilarious. Her massacre of the southern American accent and, what she believes, of the stereotype of the Southern Belle, is painfully funny. Kevin Trainor also excels in his role as Playwright: effete, camp and overdramatic.

Eliot Griggs's lighting design is stark and very effective; the decision to have the house lights up for many scenes grants a strong connection between the cast and audience. There are also a number of very short scenes, lit with lighting like static electricity that are unnerving.

Music is used to brilliant effect in the production. In the opening scene, Snoop Dogg's sexually and racially explicit track "Step Yo Game Up" booms out, as BJJ begins to paint his black face white. As he recalls the media stereotypes of black roles in the portrayal of the black experience, the irony is palpable as the lyrics of the song remind us of the stereotypical 'niggas' and 'bitches' that hip hop culture has fused into the public consciousness of black music. Theo Vidgen's excellent composition features crashing electro chords and James Douglas's virtuoso cello playing adds beautiful depth and resonance to the final scenes.

Slavery and the black experience in America are subjects that are challenging to a British audience; can we laugh at black stereotypes? How many divides in society are as a result of race? This production demands thought and consideration. It forces the audience to confront uncomfortable issues and yet remains funny and incredibly engaging. Another triumph for the Orange Tree Theatre.

An Octoroon is at Orange Tree Theatre until 24 June

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

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From This Author Aliya Al-Hassan

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