Play: An Octoroon
Theatre: Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre
Playwright: Branden Jacob-Jenkins
Director: Ned Bennett
Review by Heather Marks
Minstrelsy and redface leave an unsavoury taste in the mouth in this metatheatrical revival of a 19th century tragic race drama.
An Octoroon, a play by American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins (BJJ), is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon. It’s a play within a play, about staging a play on the expectations of blackness and the black playwright in theatre.
Straddling 2018 and 1859, Ken Nwosu (playing a version of BJJ) opens with a monologue about the difficulties of trying to stage his production, dressed in nothing but socks and boxers.
BJJ proceeds to pull these boxers into a wedgie, paint his face white and don a blond curly wig, thus beginning this farcical journey into the 19th century white imagination.
The original play focuses on the financial straits of the Louisiana residents of the Terrebonne plantation. It takes its name from the antiquated term for a person with one-eighth African heritage and refers to the love plot between Zoe, an octoroon (played by Iola Evans), and George, the white inheritor of Terrebonne (played by Nwosu). M’Closky, Terrebonne’s overseer (also Nwosu), threatens to derail George and Zoe’s happiness with his plans to buy the estate and Zoe for his own machinations.
Under Ned Bennet’s direction, An Octoroon dips in and out of Boucicault’s text to engage the audience in the way the play is staged, literally and metatheatrically, de/constructing it as we watch stagehands pull up the floorboards of Georgia Lowe’s sparse set. The technical elements of the production are sensational – strobes flash and fireworks rain down in Elliot Grigg’s lighting design, heightening the fear as Cassie Clare’s Br’er Rabbit stalks the stage.
Humour finds a home in the performances of Celeste Dodwell and Ken Nwosu. They lampoon their characters hilariously, Dodwell never missing a beat to play the unrefined cattiness of her Southern heiress and Nwosu entertaining as the hapless George and the dastardly M’Closky. Dodwell’s charmless offensive and Nwosu’s villainous swishing about the stage are an amusing contrast to the souring use of black and redface, which lets this production down.
White, black and redface are used in An Octoroon for the portrayal of its white, black and Native American characters. The performance techniques are embedded in a history of [mis]representing race onstage. And while whiteface reverses the imperial gaze, the use of blackface and redface in the play brings the original racist stereotypes back into circulation.
To see actors in black and redface on a 21st century stage is troubling. Also the frequent use of the ‘N-word’ throughout the performance makes this an unsettling viewing experience. Caricatures of black and Native American people who prance – literally – onstage exist unchecked in the play-within-a-play bubble.
What is exposed but the vulgar perceptions of black and Native American people by a white playwright? Non-black actors cooning around in blackface as enslaved characters and portraying an alcoholic Native American in redface are not critiqued with any insight, but laughed at as the butt of the joke. This is not radical theatre, by any means. It would be interesting to see how this production would fare in Nigeria or on a Native American reservation.
A black play does not have to be about race, but in trying to critique the expectations of black theatre, Jacob-Jenkins and his creative team make concessions for an antiquated racial imaginary best left in the 19th century.
An Octoroon is showing at the National Theatre until 18 July 2018.
Tickets can be booked here.
Picture credit: Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor in An Octoroon at the National Theatre. Image by Helen Murray