Daring to take on incendiary subjects of race and slavery is a risky move, but playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is not averse to controversy, and the awards and accolades keep coming – The play won an Obie and acclaim in New York, in addressing “…the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide….” Woolly Mammoth’s production will entertain some, insult others and achieve its intent to keep everybody talking.
The premise for An Octoroon actually comes from a popular 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault (same year as John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.). Jacobs-Jenkins refashioned the play keeping many of the same characters but with a twisted reality.
In the opening prologue, terrific actor Jon Hudson Odom comes out in his skivvies and addresses the audience as black playwright BJJ, disclosing the angst of the writing process. As he dresses and puts on grease paint to portray white characters—because there are just not enough white actors around — he’s soon joined by James Konicek in cheap full Native American headdress, whose personae is the actual writer Dion Boucicault, and then Joseph Castillo-Midyett, an assistant in black face for his characters, all in preparation for the actual curtain rising on the veranda of the plantation where the action begins.
White southern belle Dora, played charmingly by Maggie Wilder, whose extra wide hooped skirts can barely fit through the doorway portal, has eyes for George – Hudson in white-face – the new plantation owner. But he is smitten by Zoe, the “drop of black blood” octoroon. Once the old master died, the plantation’s up for grabs thanks to missing deeds and unscrupulous dealings of M’Closky – also Hudson – who’s also smitten with Zoe, and plans to purchase her at auction. The staging is over-the-top stylistic with characters falling into and out of slap-stick and stereotype exploring uncomfortable realities about the dreadful institution that mark us to this day.
The script touches on such tucked away sensitive topics as the hierarchy of house and field slaves, while in the next breath, slaves discuss things like reading and packing for trips and other such modern aspects of self determination and freedom, which of course have no bearing in lives that could be auctioned off and sold at will. Aspects of slavery clash with modern sensibility in brilliant flashes that director Nataki Garrett stokes knowingly to keep the sparks a’ flying.
The director definitely gets the goods from Jon Hudson Odom who struts and preens delightfully as the aristocratic new plantation owner George, channeling a bit of Prince. In this tour-de-force performance, Odom is in command from beginning to end, and everything in between, including portraying two roles simultaneously and wait, there’s more— hitting his mark in a bonafide fight scene—as two characters—that will make your head spin, movement/fight choreography by Robb Hunter.
Kathryn Tkel exudes dignity and credibility as Zoe, the “octoroon” character with a sensitive rendition of the “tragic mulatto” struggling with being too white for one world and too black in the other. Zoe is caught in shifting realities of a taboo relationship, with touching dialog much of it from the original play. Erika Rose brings a warm caring strength to her role caring for the entire brood, while Shannon Dorsey is hilarious as Minnie who dishes the dirt while finding a way to keep from sweeping it up and somehow looks ghetto fabulous in a gunny sack. Her antics rocked the theater with chasms of the laughter despite the horror of life enslaved. Jade Wheeler relays a caring depth in a pivotal scene as a pregnant baby-toting Grace.
The other characters also have defining moments — James Konicek is the second in command in assuring safe passage through this emotional roller coaster of a story. As the historical playwright, Irish immigrant Dion Boucicault, he chides the audience for not knowing and recognizing him since his play was a hit in its day. In helping to re-construct the melodrama, he wears red make up, takes on the role of the Native American, and helps explain the story, including an interlude in the second act full of sensational special effects. Talented performer Joseph Castillo-Midyett wears blackface and a pickaninny matted wig portraying Pete and the beloved little “darky child” Paul.
Sound designer Patrick Calhoun helped set the tone with songs from Stephen Foster to modern rap, and either musicians Wytold and Katie Chambers accompanies on upright bass. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills also hits the mark with shifting the mood on the flat board back drop that ranges from plain and stark to blushing to multicolor splashes of shadowy royal blue.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
There were indeed patches of brilliance in this exercise of grafting urban vernacular style and swagger on the concepts of a popular 1860s melodrama. It will make you think and talk and I am grateful for the creativity and attempt.
However, there were times when I shifted uncomfortably watching An Octoroon unfold in front of me, listening to the raucous laughter while wondering if we were all seeing the same production, like, really? Wha’ the ?— Was it a generational thing? Class? Race?
No matter how avante guard, “J.J’s” approach just does not and will not sit well with all the theater-going public and I’m afraid I’m too old-school to laugh at the jokes or nod adoringly at the shtick. It just takes time, and perhaps innovative, creative artists like Jacobs-Jenkins will keep paving the way fearlessly, as George C. Wolfe did with The Colored Museum thirty years ago and slog through the painful legacy with cotton balls, dancing renditions of Br’er Rabbit, and jovial plantation myths.
We can be thankful to Woolly Mammoth for giving us the opportunity to see for ourselves what the buzz is all about and for providing a slew of community discussions to get us through, which I can attest are truly enlightening, engaging, and helpful. It might take a while, but in its own way, humor breaks down the barriers –at least that’s probably the hope.
An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins . Directed by Nataki Garrett . Featuring James Konicek, Jon Hudson Odom, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Kathryn Tkel, Maggie Wilder, Shannon Dorsey, Erika Rose, Jade Wheeler, Jobari Parker-Namdar . Set design: Misha Kachman . Costumes: Ivania Stack . Lighting: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design: Patrick Calhoun . Co-Composers: Christylez Bacon, and Wytold . Movement/ fight choreographer: Robb Hunter. Stage Manager: John Keith Hall . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.