Monday, March 30, 2015

Margin Notes: An Octoroon

Amber Gray and Austin Smith as Zoe and
M'Closky. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
An Octoroon

Seen on: Sunday, 3/22/15.
My grade: B+. Absolutely fascinating production of a show I probably didn't fully understand.

Plot and Background
BJJ (stand-in for playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins) tells the audience of his struggles with depression and his role as "a black playwright," and his decision to re-examine Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 19th century melodrama The Octoroon. He is soon interrupted by the Playwright (Boucicault), and the two begin the retelling of the play - with a few twists. It seems they couldn't find any white actors willing to play slave owners, so BJJ, a black man, puts on whiteface make-up to portray the white characters; Playwright, meanwhile, paints his face red to take on the role of Native American stereotype Wahnotee; his assistant in turn wears blackface. The narrative of the play within the play is the melodrama of the kind-hearted plantation owner, in love with the octoroon, and the machinations of M'Closky to seize the plantation and all its slaves. There's murder, stolen letters, a mock trial, and even an explosion. This play ran previously at Soho Rep in 2014, where it won an Obie for Best New American Play.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew what the term octoroon meant (thanks Blacksburg High School and mr. dee!). I knew somewhat what a 19th century melodrama was like, though I haven't been exposed to much in practice. And I'd heard this play was not to be missed.


Play: So while I understood I was watching something truly interesting - I do like the deconstructionist approach to the narrative, and the breaking down of the trial scene and its subsequent events was really quite wonderful - with an immensely talented cast, intelligent director, and sharp and creative design team, at the end of the show I wasn't entirely sure what I was meant to take away from it. Maybe I got too mired in the actual events of the melodrama when I should have been paying more attention to everything around it. It wasn't, after all, about the story. It was about the story around the story, about the struggle to tell the story - not just the racial components, but the very trappings of melodrama and how they fail to move today's audience (BJJ and Playwright apologizing profusely that the pivotal piece of evidence was a photograph, something that would have been far more innovative back in the day). And while the story around the story is fascinating, and the way in which it's told is delightful, I guess at the end of the day I still don't understand why this is the story Jacobs-Jenkins wanted to deconstruct in the first place.

Cast: This was, without exception, a very strong ensemble of players. Austin Smith, as playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's surrogate, had an easy neurotic contemporary rhythm, and his two white-face roles, the hero George and villain M'Closky, were suitably larger than life. Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand, as house slaves Minnie and Dido, stole every scene they were in, bringing contemporary sass to this otherwise strictly period setting. And Amber Gray, who made a splash in The Great Comet, is lovely and innocent here, a good straight man to the antics around her.

Design: Holy hell this set design. It was just gorgeous. You wouldn't think you could achieve a sudden, shocking, and delightful coup de theatre twice with the exact same move, but Mimi Lien did just that with the dropping of the back wall of her set. Her set, once it's fallen open, is a void of white, peppered over with cotton balls swept into orderly (or disorderly) array by Minnie and Dido. Yes, the cotton is a nod to the cotton plantations, but it also puts its characters on unsteady ground - more than one character loses their footing amidst the fluff. Wade Labouissonniere and Cookie Jordan, on costume and hair/make-up design, gave us a semi-faithful if highly overstylized take on plantation society. And Jeff Sugg's projections, marked mostly in the shocking and slowly moving photograph, meant to replace the moment of overwrought realism at the climax of the melodrama, held the audience in utter sick silence.


Running: Recently playing at Theatre for a New Audience (Soho Rep) - Opened February 26, 2015. Closed March 29, 2015
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Sarah Benson
Designers:  Mimi Lien (Set), Wade Laboissonniere (Costume), Matt Frey (Lighting), Matt Tierney (Sound), Jeff Sugg (Projections), Cookie Jordan (Wigs and Makeup), Cesar Alvarez (Songs, Music, and Music Director), J. David Brimmer (Fight Director), David Neumann (Choreographer), (Orchestrations), Noah Mease (Props).
Cast: Maechi Aharanwa, Pascale Armand, Danielle Davenport, Amber Gray, Ian Lassiter, Austin Smith, Haynes Thigpen, Mary Wiseman.

Pascale Armand as Dido. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

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