1/30/2019        AN OCTOROON                          Actor’s Express

 

****½  ( A ) 

 

THE UNBEARABLE LEGACY OF CARICATURE

Where would the modern entertainment industry be without the enduring legacy of the minstrel shows of the 19th century?  That is the subtext of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, a thrillingly original piece that pays homage to minstrel shows even as it skewers the racist sands on which the genre was built.

 

As we enter the house, we see a Vaudeville-esque stage, surrounded by incandescent light bulbs, occasionally swept or otherwise “put in order” by a silent stage hand.  In a Br’er Rabbit suit.  We hear snippets and choruses of various classic Americana songs, all rooted in minstrelsy, all born of the institutional racism of the Olde Southe.

 

As the Prologue begins, an African American man comes out and introduces himself as a “Black Playwright.”  He tells us his favorite writer is an 19th-Century Irish Man named Boucicault, writer of an over-wrought melodrama called The Octoroon.  He tells us his therapist recommended he adapt that play, and play all the white characters himself.  A European American man joins him as Boucicault, bringing an Asian American intern with him, and taking on a caricature-y Irish brogue.  They all transform themselves into something else – white make-up on the African American, Red make-up on the European American, Black make-up on the Asian American.

 

And we’re off!  The curtain opens to an ash gray façade of a plantation, and a pair of “servants” exposition-ing the story off the ground, talking like modern women.  We meet the hero and the villain, both played by the African American

“playwright.”  We meet a young slave boy and a Native American wanderer.  And we meet the women-folk – Dora, the Belle of the Plantation who sets her hat on acquiring George, the old master’s heir.  And Zoe, the old master’s “hidden” daughter, an Octoroon – one-eighth African, whom George loves.

 

But our villain, M’Closkey, wants the land, the slaves, and the Octoroon and will stop at nothing to get all of them. {Insert Moustache-Twirl Here}

 

You may be surprised to learn that Boucicault was real as was his play.  Jacobs-Jenkins dove into deep research mode to include much of the original dialogue – complete with its denigrating terms and ideas – and have them performed in the style of the time – over-the-top emotional exaggeration (Why be sad when one can WEEP?  Why smile when one can GUFFAW?  Why despair when one can SWOON?) – that becomes pure comic rapture, especially when put into juxtaposition with the “Badass Mama” dialogue of the “servants.”

 

Brecht would be proud of the moments when the playwright stops the action to “fill in some blanks” via direct address.  The whole stylized approach – embracing of caricatures, both historical and modern, direct parody of minstrel make-up tropes, unrealistically melodramatic emotions – keeps us at arm’s length, alienates us from this sort of entertainment, and consistently reminds us that one person’s entertainment is too often another person’s indignity.  It’s a superbly crafted condemnation of Schadenfreude – that joy we feel at another’s pain.

 

And, if I may digress, it’s long overdue.  I have never been a fan of those “funniest home videos” shows that wring laughter out some bonehead accident that probably caused real pain and injury.  Yet the genre not only persists, it thrives.

 

I have never been a fan of comic “roasts,” seeing them as a bully’s way to denigrate folks and disingenuously slap an “only kidding” sticker to the still-bleeding wound.  Yet the genre not only persists, it thrives.

 

All of these are direct descendants of minstrelsy, of the idea that the “other” can be a source of laughter, with their funny little habits and funny little faces and funny little patterns of speech.

 

And An Octoroon rubs our faces in this.  It makes us laugh and then makes us feel guilty about laughing.  It shows us a style that has only gone superficially out-of-style, the roots and appeals-to-our-baser-natures, still alive and well and living in our hearts.

 

Kudos to this cast for bravely embracing the foolishness of their characters and the world they occupy.  Neal A. Ghant especially, an Atlanta treasure, shines as the playwright, as George, and as M’Closkey – the climactic fight with himself is pure delight.  Kylie Brown is winsome and sincere as Zoe – she makes us actually believe the overwrought emotions she expresses.  Brandy Sexton is all molasses and magnolias as Dora, with a drawl that would melt the heart of a Yankee.  Candy McLellan, Isake Akanke, and Parris Sarter are comic gold as the slaves with ‘tude, and Kyle Brumley, Ryan Vo, and Curtis Lipsey fill out the cast with grace and aplomb.

 

Yes, this is a comedy that appeals more to the head than the heart.  But that mental appeal, those ideas and juxtapositions are themselves thrilling and compelling.  With Appropriate (AE 2016), Mr. Jacob-Jenkins showed he was comfortable writing characters who were “outside his comfort zone,” and here, he revels in that freedom.  I eagerly await whatever adventure he has in store for us next.

 

    --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   #AEAnOctoroon)

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