Orange Tree Theatre, 14th June 2017
Crikey. An Octoroon. I am not entirely sure what I saw and learnt here. I do know it will stay in the memory for many years though and I am very glad I saw this.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins takes the bones of early Irish playwright/impresario Dion Boucicault’s hugely popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, to create a riveting meditation on slavery and on black voices in the theatre. (As an aside this immediately puts the lie to the idea of American drama only really getting going in the C20 – there was clearly vibrant theatre in the C19 – it just might not be palatable to modern audiences).
It starts with lead actor Ken Nwosu (last seen by me as a laconic Face in the RSC’s tip top Alchemist) ambling on in his undies ostensibly as the “black” playwright BJJ to explain why he came to write the play and what he wanted to say. Droll and self reverential. We start to guess we are in for a treat. He then starts to “white-up” in order to play George the lead in DB’s original. He is joined by Kevin Trainor playing DB who proceeds to go “red-face”. The assistant to BJJ played by Alistair Toovey then also “blacks up” to play two different slaves, Pete and Paul, on George’s soon-to-be inherited plantation.
All the female characters, in contrast, are played by “colour-appropriate” actors – I don’t know how else to say that. Emmanuella Cole and Vivian Oparah play Dido and Minnie, house slaves in George’s inheritance plantation, though their sass is entirely contemporary. Iola Evans is Zoe, the Octoroon of the title whose father I think was George’s uncle, and who is one-eighth black. This means that George cannot marry her. Celeste Dodwell is Dora, a rich, white, heiress neighbour who is pursuing George. Cassie Clare plays Grace, a pregnant slave and Br’er Rabbit (I am still not entirely sure why). Oh and lest I forget, Ken Nwsosu also plays M’Closky the evil neighbour (and former overseer on the plantation) who tries to secure George’s land and slaves on the death of his aunt.
All clear? It will be. The plot of DB’s play revolves around a mortgage foreclosure and an intercepted letter and sees the villain M’Closky’s dastardly deeds undone with the help of cutting edge technology (for the 1850’s), to whit, a camera. It is, despite its material, a rollickingly good tale by itself which BJJ plainly recognises. It both uncomfortably wallows in the conventions of its time and the subject of its setting, but also partially unpicks those mores. With BJJ himself then subverting and critiquing DB’s play and by implication the nature of racial stereotyping, whilst getting plenty of laughs along the way, it is unlike anything you will ever see. There is all manner of deconstruction going on – quite literally at one point as the stage is pulled to pieces. A lot of references passed me by but there was enough to feast on despite this.
I know this sounds preposterously oblique but the whole mash-up put me in mind of the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg who also created funny and insightful works from stuff he “found”. BJJ shows a similar fierce intelligence and delight in unsettling his audience. This is play as well as a play. You will be properly entertained in a broad Vaudevillian way but simultaneously made to squirm and therefore think long and hard about race and the theatre’s depiction of race.
Highly recommended. Another hit for the ever inventive Orange Tree. The cast is outstanding, director Ned Bennett pulls all the strands together, (and trust me there are many), and the solutions that designer Georgia Lowe has conjured up to deal with the limitations of the OT stage are endlessly inventive. I am now looking forward to BJJ’s next play, Gloria, which is coming up very soon at the Hampstead Theatre, though I gather it could not be more different in subject.