An Octoroon is a big play. It makes you sit up and take notice. It makes you laugh and it makes you wince. More often than not it makes you squirm uncomfortably. I’d say that it is that rare conundrum of a play: a mirror held up to our current society but loaded with poetry and “kaboom!”
And it is loosely based on an almost forgotten 19th century Anglo-Irish melodrama. For its daring and boldly-crafted alchemical mix, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins should get a bloody genius grant or something. (Oops, he’s done just that.)
Whenever you sit down at Woolly Mammoth, you pretty much know you are going to be served up challenging theatre. First timers to this show may find themselves on a steeplechase where you’re not sure what you’re chasing. There’s plenty here to offend just about everyone: including black face, white face, red face and assorted racial epithets. There’s also a life-size rabbit which appears and disappears and that may or not be important to track.
Jacobs-Jenkins has created frames within frames, where he plays with layers of reality and prismatic perspectives.
He begins with the lead character BJJ (Jon Hudson Odom), a kind of alter-ego playwright who lets us into his inner world, sharing reasons why he wrote this play as a kind of therapeutic attempt to deal with Whites, and he insists he doesn’t have a problem with Whites, or so he tells his therapist, who may or may not exist. He does this in sleek black underwear which becomes more thong-like as the prologue progresses in which he intersplices some moves that not only flaunts an exceptional body but until recently might have been X-rated.
Pre-show gyrations and front of curtain speech become dressing room chat where BJJ applies white face, explaining how he has had to step into the role of a white plantation heir in his own adaptation of Dionysius Boucicault’s buried but, to him, admirable drama about slavery. His assistant, (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) who passes as white in the meantime dons black face and a matted wig, what the Brits would call a “Gollywog” mop of hair, and begins to contort body and face into the broadest 19th-century stereotype caricature.
Odom watches the audience begin to howl with laughter at Castillo-Midyett’s appalling offensive comedy then occasionally gives a nod or simply raises an eyebrow that immediately turns our comic response into uncomfortable silence. And that’s just for openers.
In most plays there is an attempt at some kind of cohesive style. Not here. Castillo–Midyett plays three consecutive characters, each one deepening in ingrained “classic” minstrelsy. Odom moves in between playing European actor-manager elegance and leading man hamminess to a kind of contemporary ‘bitchy’ dishin’ sharpened by acutely pointed observations of living in a world of clueless, if sometimes well-meaning Whites.
closes August 6, 2017
Details and tickets
James Konicek enters in dirty long underwear, looking like a combination of a reject from a Beckett play and Dickens’ ghost of Christmas-something-the-cat-dragged-in. Turns out he is a ghost – as imagined by Jacobs-Jenkins of Boucicault – until he’s not, when he paints himself up as the Drunken Indian, complete with headdress, tomahawk and red face.
The female characters deliver the framing of Boucicault’s plantation, including a field hand and two house slaves (Felicia Curry, Shannon Dorsey and Erika Rose.) These three women excel in physical and verbal comedy but shouldn’t even be in the same play, if you were going to play by the old rules of drama. Curry plays and is treated by the other two as a “dumb,” heavily-pregnant field slave (the hierarchy of prejudice within the race itself offensive,) who can’t keep track of her children and runs around the stage with rag dolls. She embraces the styled role of stereotyped clown so effectively I didn’t recognize this talented actress.
At the other extreme, Shannon Dorsey talks modern “ghetto” talk and dishes with attitude what-you-can-do with the expectation she is going to place a chair or even fan a lady in the proper manner of a good house slave. She wins over the whole audience, who roar with appreciation at her spunk. (We’re all relieved at this character, but now I’m wondering is the playwright confronting us with our own contemporary acceptable stereotype?) Somewhere in the middle of these opposing styles, Erika Rose can make sweeping up cotton balls on the porch of a plantation a delicious comedic ballet, yet at the same time she conveys in nuanced fashion the inner life of a slave. (Or are we being had here, too?)
The landed gentry, slave-owning side, is predominantly incarnated by actress Maggie Wilder and her hoop skirt. This delicious comedic actress, makes one of the least sympathetic characters on the stage delight us, taking “dumb blonde” to new heights (or depths,) all with the assistance of her enormous skirt that has a kind of life all its own, collapsing then billowing as she navigates going through a doorway.
Then into this mix there is Kathryn Tkel, playing Zoe, the true love interest of George, the “good” White guy. She is the title character of the story, who has been brought up in the family as the illegitimate child of the plantation owner. Hers could be a flat treatment of the sudsy ingénue of a melodrama. Instead, Tkel boldly throws herself into the style and pulls it off with pathos and conviction.
The story is just getting wound up and about to get even crazier. Imagine a staged fight where the good white George and the bad white M’Closky, both played by the same character BJJ (who is played by the same actor Odom), have a fight with knives and tomahawks. Hands around necks. Rolling on the floor. Extraordinary. Hysterical. Hats off to choreographer Robb Hunter and Odom.
The acting in this cast is superb, as you may have gathered, but the shaping and focusing of this three-ring circus has come from the fearless and bold director, Nataki Garrett. She has not only given them permission to live and play “outside the box” but she pushes them to be obscenely inappropriate and offensive while I imagine holding them safely together to do so. This is what great directing is and should be – not some kind of conceptual implant but something brazen that has been cooking and steeping in the truth of a playwright’s world.
Garrett has also clearly defined moments when there are crystal revelations. One such moment is a scene after the “N-word” has been used abundantly along with other many unacceptable statements when Odom showers some more abuse on the black slave characters. Suddenly, he turns and looks at the audience. There is a look that passes between him and us. It’s as if he realizes in the moment that saying those things no longer shocks him. Also, more horrific, he finds he is no long playing at being the abusive powerful white figure, but in embracing white power he in fact revels in it.
In that moment I felt an electric shock go through my own body and whole auditorium. It was happening in present time.
Was it defined by the playwright or the director to have the cellist on stage? Katie Chambers added yet another “framing” device with her on-stage playing. Beautiful.
Did I say something about the rabbit? He keeps coming back. WTF? BJJ recounts somewhere in the beginning of the play he had once written a play about animals and that they were not supposed to represent African folk tales. So why am I thinking Br’er Rabbit? And why am I trying to make sense of the critter? Now I’m thinking, Jacobs-Jenkins just had me didn’t he? What’s he playing?
As for Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth and the Prospero on this island, he conjured up this show. In steering the ship of this company, what an assembly of new writing the man has plumbed – some just crazy and some crazy good. He continues to be the best script doctor in our community. An Octoroon may be his most generously delivered and most thrilling. Thank you, Howard, for the ride.
An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Nataki Garrett. Set Design by Misha Kachman. Costume Design by Ivania Stack. Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills. Sound Design by Patrick Calhoun. Co-Composers by Christylez Bacon, Wytold. Movement/Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter. With Jon Hudson Odom, James Konicek, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Kathryn Tkel, Maggie Wilder, Shannon Dorsey, Erika Rose, Felicia Curry, Jobari Parker-Namdar, and Cellist Katie Chambers. Produced by Woolly Mammoth. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.