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.
There is a common phenomenon in modern playwriting that this reviewer likes to dub: “the revelation of a micro-aggression”. This is a moment within a play in which one character says something seemingly innocuous to another character, which that second character calls out for being subtly racist, sexist, classist, or judgmental of some sort. This being theatre, where, unless you’re an Annie Baker or a Kenneth Lonergan, everything has to mean something, this seemingly harmless comment is actually almost invariably a physical manifestation of a gargantuan chasm of hatred that exists within the first character’s soul. Prime examples of this phenomenon include prize-winning works like Disgraced or Clybourne Park, but perhaps have never existed more potently than in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, which is currently playing in its world-premiere production through the San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Strand Theatre.