Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

An Octoroon
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Much Ado About Nothing and Splendour and Richard's reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Girl I Meant to Be

Jennifer Regan and Lance Gardner
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Berne/
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Berkeley Repertory is presenting a provocative production of An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of The Octoroon, a popular 19-century melodrama by Dion Boucicault. While I was growing up in Ohio in the 1930s, there were tent shows that toured the small towns and they would present these over the top melodramas.

The evening starts with a skirmish between the authors of the piece. First to enter the stage is BJJ (Lance Gardner), the playwright, who is black. He sits at the dressing table center stage and applies white makeup to his face—he is to play a white man. Next is an intoxicated showman representing Dion Boucicault (Ray Porter). He smears red makeup all over his face and he plays an American Indian for the first act and then an auctioneer in the second act. They do a condensed rewrite of Boucicault's original, a debt-written farce in which the Peyton family's Louisiana plantation is to fall into the dodgy hands of its former overseer, M'Closky. It is about 1859, before the Civil War, and George Peyton (Lance Gardner) has fallen in love with Zoe (Sydney Morton), who is of one-eighth black ancestry, and he needs to marry Dora (Jennifer Regan). I leave the rest to your imagination. This is one of the most challenging productions I have seen in a long time.

The white actors assume blackface and, while Boucicault's original was broad-minded in its ant-slavery communication, it also traded on racial stereotypes. Jacobs-Jenkins gives the characters modern feelings and at times has them speak in the language of today. The adapter summarizes Boucicault's thought-provoking climax which will shock you.

Nine actors portray the antebellum cast. Lance Gardner switches between three roles, that of the exasperated playwright, gentle Southern plantation owner George, and the murderous slave-owner M'Closky, giving with his magnificent voice a brilliant performance as each character. Ray Porter, whom I have reviewed many times at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is brilliant as Boucicault, Wahnotee, an American Indian and auctioneer Lafouche. He effortlessly transforms himself into each character, even in red face in the second act. Jennifer Regan as Dora, the hoop-skirted heiress smitten with George, gives an over the top hilarious performance as she tries to attract George.

Sydney Morton as Zoe is pitch perfect when she says, "The one drop of black blood fills me with despair, for I am an unclean thing. But I'd rather be black than ungrateful." Afi Bijou as Minnie, Jasmine Bracey as Dido, and Afua Busia as Grace are excellent as closely bonded slaves. They speak in a beautiful natural pace and rhythm. Amir Talai doubles on the piano off to the left side of the stage, playing songs that were popular in silent movie houses of the 1920s. He gives a good account of himself also by playing in black face a comic black slave on the order of an old time minstrel show performer.

This is an inventive production, with Arnulfo Maldonado's nifty scenic design, Montana Blanco's costumes, featuring outfits of the period, and the sharp direction of Eric Ting. Jiyoun Chang's lighting design is blunt.

An Octoroon runs through July 29, 2017, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St, Berkeley. Coming up next is Mike Birbiglia's one man show entitled The New One, running August 2 - 13.

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