If race and identity are the most challenging and frequently eschewed topics for discussion in polite society, then imagine how it feels to watch an unabashed exploration of those subjects unfold on a stage, the talking points pulled out of your subconscious and staring right back at you. No one is blinking. No one is apologetic.
In An Octoroon, it’s clear Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a D.C. native who won an Obie Award for this work, wanted his audience to be uncomfortably entertained. In the masochistically brilliant reworking of The Octoroon—a 19th-century melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault—the story begins with the monologue of a black playwright, BJJ played by Jon Hudson Odom. The character is written to express some of Jacobs-Jenkins’ feelings about having being labelled a “black playwright.” BJJ airs his frustrations to his imaginary therapist about being branded as a writer who can—and therefore should only—write about race.
Reeling in his pain, BJJ guzzles a bottle of Jack Daniels, paints his face white, and costumes himself in 18th-century clothing. His transformation complete, he’s no longer a black man in the present day but a white man in the antebellum South. Odom’s transformation is intoxicating because of its vulnerability and sense of exposure: It’s a moment you’d expect a playwright to make the audience wait for.
The original 1859 source material was in part a minstrel show that cast white actors in blackface to depict a European stereotype of American slaves. Boucicault appeared in redface to play a Native American character, Wahnotee. Jacobs-Jensen’s adaptation revives some of the original characters, giving them new roles to play, and adds several new characters: James Konicek wears redface to play Playwright (Boucicault), Wahnotee, and Lafouche; Joseph Castillo-Midyett appears as the playwright’s assistant and then dons blackface as Pete/Paul; and in whiteface, Odom plays George Peyton and M’Closky.
The action takes place at Terrebonne, a Louisiana plantation facing financial collapse under Peyton’s ownership. Peyton falls in love with Zoe (Kathryn Tkel), his uncle’s illegitimate daughter who is one-eighth black—an “octoroon.” George does his best to hold on to the plantation which is in danger of being lost to the evil overseer, M’Closky, who plots to buy it—and Zoe—for himself.
In many scenes, the satire unfolding onstage is not immediately apparent—a slave woman is sweeping cotton off the floor with a broom, a Br’er Rabbit–type character peeks at the play through his own lens and hops along, a melodramatic octoroon girl from the 1850s speaks in Shakespearean prose—even though it feels just within reach. You could easily walk away from this play and not “get it,” or leave with the feeling that it was a play within a twisted version of a minstrel play. But you will walk away feeling raw.
This could be the result of the provocative subject matter, but credit is also due to the affecting performances and Nataki Garrett’s deft directing. The script finds a way to make the play offensively present—the line between present-day racial mores, Jim Crow-era racism, and plantation-era slavery are blurred. Two house slaves, Minnie (Shannon Dorsey) and Dido (Erika Rose), carry on like contemporary gossiping girlfriends about a slave girl being sold: “I can’t stand [Rebecca], she’s so fake.” Actors move on and off stage (and into the audience), or the action is elevated upstage, and the overall effect is to let the stinging performances (there’s a wrenching scene in which slaves are shackled together to be auctioned, for example) linger right in front of you, both physically and emotionally. It was hard to sit through the historical but decidedly perverse moments that some in the audience found funny: Watching the auction, although eliciting hysterics from the actors themselves, evoked an acute sense of anxiety.
With his first play, Neighbors, in 2010, Jacobs-Jenkins received mixed reviews from critics for using blackface, among other shocking techniques, to get a rise out of his audiences. But if the goal with An Octoroon was to get the audience to react—after a particularly rattling scene in the final act, Castillo-Midyett’s character says outright that the point of this was to make you feel something—he succeeded. However, it leaves one unsure whether the shock value or the message itself will serve to change the way we talk about race and identities with each other. It may simply serve as an omnipresent reminder of what harrowed more than 150 years ago, deep in America’s past. Maybe leaving the theater feeling this rattled and raw really is enough.
The play runs through June 26. 641 D St. NW. $20–$128. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.com.