As dramaturgy alone, AN OCTOROON is exhilarating, but its pleasures – for such they are – run deeper. The playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the director Sarah Benson have restored, recast, retooled, and revived Dion Boucicault‘s THE OCTOROON with a mimetic deftness that reifies and exposes the racialist assumptions and stereotypes that animate, indeed dramatize, the original work. A staple of 19th-century melodrama, THE OCTOROON was seen as, and perhaps was, enlightened for its time, resembling UNCLE TOM’S CABIN in the tension it carries between humane intention and moral obtuseness. This has, like any conflict, dramatic potential, in this case above and beyond the tensions of the plot, refracting tensions in the society at large. It is a tension that can be tragic or comic, forthright or ironic. The Soho Rep’s AN OCTOROON, showing at Theater for a New Audience through March 29, seizes the opportunity, brilliantly. It does so by resort to the spirit of play – of imitation, pretense, and “playing along” – that is theater at its most elemental and the human at its best and worst.
AN OCTOROON is presented as a freestanding work that does not so much adapt the original as frame and re-frame it, as a thing encountered, looked at, listened to and considered while still involving us in the sentiments and sensations of melodrama. A narrator figure, ostensibly the playwright, draws the first frame, recounting how he, a black man, came to engage with a work so quintessentially racist (when his shrink asks him if he hates white people, he protests that all of his best friends are white). By the end of the prologue, he is putting on white face, the better to play George, the good-hearted slave owner, and M’Closky, the evil rival who plans to take over the plantation. Those roles are nimbly put on by New York stage newcomer Austin Smith. Jacobs-Jenkins himself is reputed to appear, without credit, during entre-acts, in a great animal head, as Br’er Rabbit, the hybrid trickster of African and Native American tradition. The markers of stereotype and identity are up for grabs in this setup. The “Indian” Wahnotee is acted in headdress and red face by Haynes Thigpen, who requires no change in makeup when he doubles as the sunburnt – redneck – Lafouche. I haven’t mentioned the doll in blackface, the Southern belle in stereotypical dress, or the villain with the moustache.
What is on display here is the shocking arbitrariness of the external markers of human worth (the less of which there is, the higher a person’s value as a commodity). The issue raised by the marker can be trivial: Why ought a black moustache, or even the twirling of it, suggest unscrupulousness? Or grave: How does skin color in any conceivable way relate to the moral value of a person? Why do clothes make the man, or imply the quality of the woman? The markers can be complex (those of antebellum femininity were many), or work in basic combinations (red is skin color, rather than a sunburn, if worn with a feathered headdress), or with terrible simplicity: black is black and white is white.
Except when they are not. For the main conflict of the play is over the unmarked blackness of Zoe, the title character, a woman one-eighth African and thus subject to enslavement and, even if freed, other prohibitions. That this is the deep unfairness with which Boucicault chose to attack slavery – basically that the octoroon is an abused white person – is problematic enough. That his further moral is not even abolitionist, but more a call for humane treatment (in the vein of animal welfare) gives the play a tragic, if unintended, irony and, as AN OCTOROON so bravely recognizes, an even more unintended comedy. That racism is immoral and anti-human needs to be said – still – and often is, in art and life; that it is ridiculous to the point of laughable, even when faced with its human consequences, and that Benson and Jacobs-Jenkins make us laugh for real, is a theatrical – and social – coup of more than a little import.
AN OCTOROON’s mix-and-match stereotyping, pervasive theatricality, and overwrought melodrama delight, even as they instruct and move us. The stage, by the way, is covered with cotton balls. Do not get me wrong. There is plenty of tragic relief in this production, for it gets at the unspoken hypocrisies of our culture and our personal psychologies: at all we like to think we are beyond, as individuals and as a society, but aren’t. It helps to know that the markers can be taken on and off, and redefined, and drained, if we are lucky, of their venom. But, although surfaces can be false, and maybe by definition they always are, the thing at issue is what they bring out of or put into the ones that wear them. The false surface need not be visual; language too has its masks. A pronouncement like Zoe’s “I had rather be a slave with a free soul, than remain free with a slavish, deceitful heart,” has the outward form of a proverb, of words to live by. In the event, Amber Grey fills them with the sentimental value they demand, but laces them, too, with the irony of their hollowness. She makes them stirring, but uncomfortably so. It is, like the whole of her performance, a finely played double game, empathy twinned with embitterment.
There is, crucially, truth in language as well as falsehood, and it is significant that Boucicault’s text is unsanitized in AN OCTOROON. The imposed wisdom of the chestnut is one thing. The N-word, which is liberally used, another. One senses the reality that it signifies in the speaker, that it puts into or brings out of the one who utters it, along with the falseness it states about the other at whom it is directed. To say the word is to condemn oneself, justly. There is a sense in which AN OCTOROON treats the Boucicault original in the same way, like a long racist joke that turns on its speaker, making the one who tells it the thing to be laughed at.
AN OCTOROON continues through March 29 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. For tickets and information, click here.