In an age which has become brow-beaten by simply how much everyone living today has seen, the concept of being made uncomfortable by that which is new can be a slightly alien concept. This is true in life and perhaps even more true in art. In an era where the hyper-violent Game of Thrones is the single most culturally relevant piece of current pop culture, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, and most popular music has been sexualized to the point of diminishing returns, finding a piece of art that is invigoratingly, aggressively different from any perceived norm can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but it can also be vital and arrestingly beautiful if done correctly. Such is the case with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, his 2014 play currently in a production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which can be initially off-putting, but offers tremendous rewards for those willing to give it a chance.
An Octoroon begins with an author surrogate named “BJJ” addressing the audience in his underwear. The subject of address is the play that we are about to see, which is a modern transplantation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 American melodrama The Octoroon (note the change in article). The Octoroon takes place in Louisiana, where a large plantation whose owner has just died is to be put up for auction to pay for the debts of its deceased owner. George, the nephew of the previous owner, is doing all that he can to raise enough money to prevent the plantation and all of the slaves on it from being sold, all while falling in love with Zoe, who is an octoroon (one eighth black), but the previous owner’s bastard daughter who was raised as though she were white. The villain here is the evil M’Closky, who is, for some reason, out to get George and his estate, and is also in love with Zoe. The tension arises when it turns out that Zoe might not have actually been granted freedom by the state of Louisiana (being any part black immediately made you property) and might be available to be bought by M’Closky, who is far wealthier than George and thus freely able to purchase her. Boucicault’s play is rarely mounted nowadays, and only studied as a novelty, but at the time it was one of the most popular American antebellum melodramas. According to BJJ, the inspiration for his play came from a conversation that he had with his therapist to go back to the roots of why he loved being a playwright and theatre in general, his own answer being Boucicault’s body of work, to which his therapist suggests adapting one of his plays.
The tone here is casual, even light, but something is ever so slightly off, and about ten minutes later we are watching a white actor in full 19th century Native American red-face, complete with a war bonnet and a yellow dress, perform a mock tribal dance around a dress form mannequin set to Iggy Azalea’s 2014 song “Fancy” (you know the one), and another five minutes later we are thrust into the action of Jacobs-Jenkins’s transplantation of Boucicault, which features elements of blackface, whiteface, savage parody, and intensely anachronistic dialogue smashed together with straight out of the period speechifying that is both impossibly funny and revoltingly dark in form and subject.
An Octoroon is a postmodern avant-garde surrealist socio-political piece of theatre, one that looks at all conventions of decency and form of playwriting and spits in their face, instead content to do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases to do so. It is also psychotically ambitious and overstuffed as hell. If it didn’t work as well as it did, it might be singularly awful, but it does work—marvelously so, if I might add—and we are thus granted a truly unique work of modern art for the stage that will have you laughing as hard as you are left thinking. Much of the laughter generated by An Octoroon is of the uneasy sort, rather like getting a fit of giggles at a funeral and being unable to stop laughing despite the seriousness of the situation. When George, here played by the same actor who played BJJ, only now in whiteface, says ever-so-pleasantly: “How I enjoy the folksy ways of the niggers down here”, it triggers a deep and guttural laugh, but immediately inspires an audience member to question why they are laughing in the first place. An Octoroon is a provocation, but it’s a provocation that manages to be spectacularly entertaining and never one that slips so far into didacticism that it forgets to have any fun, and it brings on the laughs far too quickly for anything to get bogged too far down. Thus, it never slips in to territory of showing open contempt for a paying audience—always the death knell for those who wish to challenge perceptions—instead managing to stay on top of an audience’s expectations and experience.
It is, in short, a major play, a major statement on the modern state of race in America and how it relates to the history of racial oppression and slavery, and an experience that one shouldn’t count on leaving your head until long after seeing the production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which is as invigorating and exiting as the text itself. Director Eric Ting’s staging is chock-full of vaudevillian glee, always careful to stress the comedy and leave the social reality of the play up for the audience to consider, and his ensemble cast of nine is absolutely remarkable. Lance Gardner, a highly prolific actor in the area, has a tendency to be overly emphatic in his acting, but here it is a quality that proves ultimately beneficial, his triple performance as BJJ, George, and M’Closky one of savage scenery chewing that proves both entertaining to watch and focused enough to anchor such a large cast in its leading performance. The rest of the cast is all worthy of mention, but I will single out Amir Talai, who gives a terrifically uncomfortable blackface performance that is magnetic in its refusal to let you look away, despite your revulsion to the caricature, and Jennifer Regan, who plays the straight comic relief in Dora, a spectacularly racist southern belle who is as in love with George as she is terrible at speaking french. Sydney Morton as Zoe also deserves credit, for her role is such that the comedy halts and the pathos begins whenever she starts speaking, but her rich and layered performance is more than developed enough to pull such a difficult task off without throwing off the balance of the play. Arnulfo Maldonado’s deceptively complex set features enough whiz-bang trickery to have even the most design-ignorant audience members in awe, and Montana Blanco’s costumes, particularly the gargantuan candy-colored dresses for Dora, are perfect.
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre deserves genuine credit for mounting An Octoroon. Certainly it’s the kind of social play of which there is no dearth of at this current moment, but its execution is so bold and so singular that it is not unwarranted to say that there is simply nothing like An Octoroon. Everyone should do themselves the service of getting up to Berkeley before it closes; I hope it will stay with you like it will doubtless stay with me.
An Octoroon plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in downtown Berkeley through July 23rd. Tickets and information available here.