A black actor in whiteface. A Hispanic actor in blackface. A white actor in, uh, redface. And four women of color and a white lady and another black guy. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is both pointedly race-and-gender diverse and a thoughtful piece about the limits of representation. Specifically, it’s an artful rant about its author’s discomfort about being pigeonholed as a “black playwright.” (The quotation marks are his.)
“I’m a ‘black playwright,’” he (as embodied by the fierce and brilliant Jon Hudson Odom) announces right at the top, shortly before he begins covering his face in white makeup. “I don’t know exactly what that means.” But as his lament continues, it becomes clear that at least part of what it means is the presumption that he will write with personal insight on an African-American experience made up of crime and poverty and illiteracy and addiction and tragedy. Though his (barely) alter ego “BJJ” never says so, the real-life Jacobs-Jenkins graduated from the private St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase, and then Princeton University. Privilege and opportunity are not abstractions to him.
Director Nataki Garrett says not one word of the script for An Octoroon—a jeremiad about the early 21st century theater biz wrapped around a wry, raw update of a popular 19th century melodrama—has been revised since she opened her sublime production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company 13 months ago. The funniest and most provocative offering from any of D.C.’s major theaters during the interminable Year of Our Lord two thousand sixteen (even if the Helen Hayes Awards disagreed) has returned unaltered, with its sterling cast fully intact. In the interim, Jacobs-Jenkins was awarded, at the wizened age of 31, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
But that’s not the event that has shaken the Earth since An Octoroon was here last, or the one that makes individual lines and moments stand out in a way they didn’t last summer, or in 2014 when An Octoroon first appeared off-off Broadway. (Or, presumably, in 1859, when Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon—the interracial love saga that Jacobs-Jenkins’ play deconstructs—was a giant hit.) A slave auctioneer says he will not permit collusion. A critical plot point hinges on the discovery of a photograph, with the playwright pausing the action to observe that this was cutting-edge tech when The Octoroon was new, and that its original audience would not have shared our sense of how easily it can be manipulated or faked. One bitter lesson of the past 12 months goes unremarked: Just because a camera records a killing doesn’t mean the killer will be punished.
Other topical flourishes were more deliberate. In last Friday night’s press performance, Odom—who also plays both the cruel slaveowner M’Closky and the (comparatively) humane slaveowner George, because, he tells us in his long opening monologue, “all the white guys quit” rather than play unreformed, just-plain-evil slavers—appended a scripted line about how he can’t afford a therapist with the apparent ad-lib, “I have a preexisting condition.” Later, in the role of the villain M’Closky, he tells his male opponent in a knife fight, (also played by Odom!) that he’s going to “stab you in the pussy.” The line isn’t in the script either, and it’s less astute than Odom’s first addition, but a reminder that Jacobs-Jenkins’s satirical targets have grown more powerful during An Octoroon’s lifespan.
Another tweak I noticed was the replacement of a Childish Gambino song during the show’s opening monologue with Kendrick Lamar’s recent “HUMBLE.” (On paper, Jacobs-Jenkins just says it’s “loud, crude, bass-heavy, hypermasculine rap music.”)
The funniest element of the show remains the trio of Shannon Dorsey, Erika Rose, and Felicia Curry as slaves who have their own gossip sessions and workplace rivalries. (Dorsey got one of An Octoroon’s absurdly few Helen Hayes nominations, in the supporting actress category, for her part as Minnie, a slave who Can’t Even.) They worry what will become of them if the plantation where at least a couple of them have spent their entire lives is sold.
James Konicek and Joseph Castillo-Midyett deserve praise for gamely assaying the show’s other grease-painted roles, both of them wildly insulting stereotypes : Konicek is both the Irish playwright Boucicault and the noble-but-firewater-besotted “Injun” Wahnotee, while Castillo-Midyett has to deploy the N-word more often and more wantonly than anyone else as the shucking-and-jiving old slave Pete. An earlier, less controlled Jacobs-Jenkins show, Neighbors, put its black actors in blackface. That reductive facepaint is a grenade of a device, one the playwright has finally figured out how to use. An Octoroon is as uproarious and troubling as it is exhausting. This is as it should be.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to Aug. 6. 641 D St. NW. $20-$79. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.