Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

An Octoroon
Dobama Theatre
Review by Mark Horning

Also see Mark's recent review of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents

Katrice Monee Headd and India Nicole Burton
Photo by Steve Wagner Photography
Prior to the Civil War, Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault spent an entire week living on a plantation in the Deep South in order to get "the feel" of the conditions for both the plantation owners and the slaves. Returning to New York City he wrote his antebellum melodrama The Octoroon based on Thomas Mayne Reid's novel The Quadroon. Boucicault's play opened in 1859 in the midst of racial chaos and seven years after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (whose author did not travel below the Mason-Dixon Line until after the Civil War but whose book became the national best seller second only to the Bible).

While both works were fraught with inconsistencies and inaccuracies both had a huge impact on Northern culture at the time giving rise to a more fervent and radical abolitionist movement later resulting in conditions that began the Civil War. At its heyday, The Octoroon had no less than seven road productions touring for several years as abolitionist fever gripped the North.

Fast forward to 2014 where black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon and brings it to the Off-Broadway stage. In the Jacob-Jenkins take, the play begins with a black actor coming on stage wearing just a pair of white underwear. He introduces himself as the playwright BJJ (Ananias J. Dixon) who bemoans the fact that all of his work is criticized as an attempt to deconstruct the race problem in America (this even includes his play about farm animals). He also complains that, prior to the first opening of his work, the white cast members quit, forcing him to take on the parts himself using white face.

BJJ then proceeds to apply white face and a blond wig as a white actor enters (also in his underwear) who represents Dion Boucicault (Abraham Adams) and complains that he is nearly forgotten as a playwright. The two men get into an F-word exchange which ends with Boucicault taking over the make-up table and putting on red face, dressing himself in roughly assumed Native American gear. Dion then proceeds to go into a wild version of "an Indian dance" set to techno music as the play begins with Br'er Rabbit who mysteriously and silently appears throughout the next two hours and who begins by spreading cotton balls across the stage from the pile that was dumped center stage at the beginning.

Through the blurred lines of make-up, the point is made that "race" is not a matter of DNA but one of history, heritage and performance, with the emphasis more on projection than perception.

George has returned to the ancestral home of his recently deceased uncle, a plantation in near ruins (due to the uncle's gambling and philandering), and an ill aunt. He falls in love with Zoe (Natalie Green), an octoroon who is his illegitimate half cousin (the offspring of his uncle and a slave). The owner of another plantation, Dora (Anjanette Hall) has fallen for George's continental charms and has set her eyes on him. The villain, M'Closky, is the former overseer of Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana where the action takes place. He has, through hook and crook, managed to come into possession of all the outstanding gambling and foreclosure debts to the plantation, which includes the slaves as part of the property. He also has a desire for Zoe.

When the mail brings a letter containing a promise of cash that will save the plantation for George, M'Closky kills the slave delivering the mail using the Native American's tomahawk. all the while blaming it on the slave's friend, the Indian Wahnotee (Abraham Adams) but not before M'Closky is captured in a photo during the murder. The play comes to a climax during the auction scene.

Keep in mind that this work is a recreation of an authentic antebellum melodrama combined with avant-garde techniques, featuring the elimination of the "fourth wall," and contemporary scenes thrown in. Some audience members may find the work confusing as it seamlessly switches from genre to genre. Others may be put off by the overly dramatic (at times cartoonish) portrayals of the various stereotypes, resembling at times a silent film with loud dialog. And the "F" word and "N" word are used so frequently that at some point they lose their impact.

The production is quite capably directed by Nathan Motta with the cast fully immersing themselves in the ridiculousness of their characters. Nothing (and this means nothing) is spared as social commentary runs rampant from start to finish.

If you have a skewed sense of adventure and wish to travel down the path less traveled, you may find An Octoroon to your liking. Remember that you are traveling back over 150 years to one of the first examples of theatrical social commentary with contemporary theater thrown in on both ends. While not your typical evening of light entertainment, nonetheless it will give you food for thought and conversation following the show.

An Octoroon runs through November 13, 2016, at Dobama theatre, in the Heights Library located at 2340 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights.

Tickets are $29-32 with Senior and Student discounts available. Call the Box Office at (216) 932-3396 or walk up box office hours are Wednesday - Saturday through 11/12, 12 noon-4 p.m. For more information, visit

Cast: Ananias J. Dixon+: BJJ/George/M'Closky; Abraham Adams+: Playwright/Wahnotee/Lafouche; Arif Silverman+: Assistant/Pete/Paul; Natalie Green*: Zoe; Katrice Monee Headd+: Minnie; India Nicole Burton+: Dido; Anjanette Hall*: Dora; Maya Jones+: Grace; Nathan A Lilly+: Br'er Rabbit/Ratts.

Creative: Nathan Motta: Director; Richard H. Morris, Jr.: Scenic Designer; Marcus Dana: Lighting Designer; Derek Graham: Sound Designer; Tesia Dugan Benson: Costume Designer; Richard Ingraham: Projection Designer; Yesenia Real-Rivera: Props Designer; David Tilk: Technical Director; Megan Mingus*: Stage Manager; Beth McGee: Dialect Coach; Lenora Inez Brown: Dramaturg; Ryan Zarecki: Fight Coordinator; Nathan A. Lilly: Assistant Director; Emily Bowe: Wardrobe; Emory Noakes: Production Assistant.

*Member of Actors Equity Association

+Equity Membership Candidate

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