Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Nancy's review of Milk Like Sugar
An Octoroon is the third Jacobs-Jenkins play to be produced in Boston in the last five years (Neighbors by Company One, Appropriate by SpeakEasy Stage Company) and it furthers his aesthetic of challenging the audience with an exploration and theatricalization of race. There is more overt comedy in this one than the earlier two, but in the midst of the laughter, there is always the lingering question of whether or not we should be laughing. Director Summer L. Williams deserves credit for drawing complex performances from a dynamic cast, seamlessly blending from the stark opening scenes of the play into the melodramatic play-within-the-play, even as three of the actors take on multiple roles with distinction.
Brandon Green (as BJJ) stands in for Jacobs-Jenkins and introduces the audience to the world of the play. He also plays the white plantation owner George Peyton and the villainous M'Closky, the former's rival for land and love. As he explains the playwright's reason for George being portrayed by a black actor, Green applies whiteface to transform into the character. Moments later, Brooks Reeves covers his white skin with red makeup to portray Wahnotee, a Native American, while South-Asian actor Harsh Gagoomal dons blackface for his roles as Pete, an elderly house slave, and a young slave named Paul. Once they have completed their metamorphoses, the previously bare stage is quickly decorated as painted backdrops unfurl to suggest the bucolic plantation and the melodrama is afoot.
The narrative revolves around financial woes on Peyton's plantation that necessitate selling the land and the slaves. When an auction is held, he hopes to be able to save his beloved Zoe (Shawna M. James), the octoroon (1/8th black) of the title, from the clutches of M'Closky by beseeching the wealthy belle Dora (Bridgette Hayes) to purchase her for him, even though Dora has her heart set on marrying George. Minnie (Elle Borders) and Dido (Obehi Janice), two house slaves, package themselves as a pair and, envisioning a better life, attract the attention of a riverboat captain (Kadahj Bennett). The unfortunate Grace (Amelia Lumpkin), seemingly in a constant state of pregnancy, ends up as the property of the villainous M'Closky.
Green is immense in the trio of roles, never better than in the scene in which Peyton and M'Closky battle each other over Zoe, and he projects dignity in the act of covering his skin with white paint. Green also participates in a wonderful verbal face-off with Reeves in the early going when the latter is representing the Irish playwright in a state of inebriation. In addition to Boucicault, Reeves gives a highly sympathetic portrayal of Wahnotee, and is chilling as the less than compassionate auctioneer Lafouche. The slaves are fully realized by Gagoomal's loud, shuffling Pete; the outspoken and vividly animated characters of Borders and Janice; and Lumpkin's wailing, hapless victim. Bennett also inhabits the giant animal head of the silent Br'er Rabbit whose presence was somewhat of a mystery to me.
The design elements go a long way in creating the world of An Octoroon and providing atmosphere. Justin and Christopher Swader (scenic) make a stark distinction between the intro of the play and the melodrama, and Christopher Brusberg (lighting) sets mood and place. Jonathan Carr is responsible for some harrowing, disturbing projections. The costumes by Amanda Mujica are evocative of the Antebellum fashions, and David Wilson (sound) employs music to immerse us in the period. One of Jacobs-Jenkins' great achievements in An Octoroon is his ability to make us feel that we are simultaneously experiencing a theatrical event from 150 years in the past and something that is strikingly relevant for today. In its collaboration with ArtsEmerson, Company One proves that it is not only important to program provocative theater, it is important to do it well. An Octoroon walks the walk.
An Octoroon, performances through February 27, 2016, presented by Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson at Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Emerson/Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org.
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Directed by Summer L. Williams; Dramaturgs, Ramona Ostrowski and Haley Fluke; Scenic Design, Justin and Christopher Swader; Costume Design, Amanda Mujica; Lighting Design, Christopher Brusberg; Sound Design, David Wilson; Props Design, Anita Shriver; Projection Design, Jonathan Carr; Stage Manager, Julie Langevin
Cast: Brandon Green, Brooks Reeves, Harsh Gagoomal, Shawna M. James, Bridgette Hayes, Elle Borders, Obehi Janice, Amelia Lumpkin, Kadahj Bennett