a work of art that is one-eighth a dark examination of life in the days of chattel slavery, and seven-eighths a light-hearted send up of melodrama, anachronistic dialogue, meta-commentary on the complexity of discussing issues of race, and stunning "coups de theatre."
Result: As an outcome of creative artistic miscegenation, this play presents a profound and often disturbing examination of delicate issues of race that are often not discussed openly, producing moments of discomfort for the artistic creators and story tellers as well as for the sentient members of the audience.
The play, "An Octoroon" being produced at the Soho Rep, is an absolute MUST SEE for anyone who can get themselves to Walker Street in Soho between today and June 8. Written brilliantly by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed with a nuanced touch by Sarah Benson, this World Premiere event is a scintillating and challenging evening of theater.
The original melodrama was written by Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault. It opened in 1859 and was the second most popular show on Broadway after "Uncle Tom's Cabin." As cultural tastes changed and issues of race were dealt with in new ways, this melodrama was considered offensive and too full of stereotypes to be acceptable, so it was shelved and nearly forgotten. One of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' professors, Daphne Brooks urged the young writer and his fellow students to do something with the play that lay forgotten in the dust bin of theater history. The idea for the resulting new "An Octoroon" was born as a play-within-a-play with several layers of meta-commentary about how we allow ourselves or deny ourselves opportunities to speak openly about race. The playwright is bold and challenging. How should I, as an audience member, feel about his choice to put black actors in "White face" and white actors in "Black face"? How about the inclusion of Br'er Rabbit, also a symbol of politically incorrect discussion of race.
The brilliant set design by Mimi Lien is deceptively simple at the outset; a bare black box. But the set transmogrifies several times during the show and advances the telling of the story by literally and metaphorically removing walls and adding layers of meaning to the platforms upon which the actors tell the story of Zoe, the daughter of her plantation owner who lives much of her life as a free woman as part of the family until her father dies and her free status is challenged and she is threatened with being sold into slavery.
A device that Jacobs-Jenkins uses to great effect is to have two women field hands, Minnie and Dido, speak in anachronisms as if they were fellow office workers in 2014 Manhattan. It causes one to think in new ways to hear one slave woman say to another: "Honey, you need to realize that you are not your job!" This is brilliant writing and incisive story telling. Jocelyn Bioh and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Minnie and Dido are beyond brilliant in their roles, and serve as "Earth Mothers" for the play - the fertile soil from which the other characters grow and blossom.
Th rest of the cast members are equally impressive, including Amber Gray as a Zoe who undergoes dramatic changes. The actress leads us along that emotional underground railroad with grace and passion. Chris Myers does much of the heavy lifting in a triple role of BJJ the playwright, George the young heir to the plantation and M'Closkey, his main rival. His opening monologue as the desultory and chronically depressed playwright talking with his therapist is in itself worth the price of admission.
Another standout actor is Danny Wolohan in the dual roles of the dipso-maniacal Irish playwright and Wahnotee the Indian companion to feeble-minded Pete, played ably by Ben Horner. Zoe Winters is wonderful as Dora, the rich femme fatale who is in love with George. Shyko Amos adds humor and pathos as the pregnant field hand Grace.
Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins himself plays a cameo role, wandering onto the set at various times as Br'er Rabbit, adding mute commentary by his staring around at the audience and by his shuffling gait. He and his fellow Uncle Remus characters may have been relegated to the Disney vault for being too politically incorrect to be aired in this enlightened age, but Zippity Doo Dah, he still has something to say, even if he says it tacitly as a roaming rodent Greek Chorus.
I have left out many details of this complex play in fear of spoiling some wonderful surprises and plot devices. This play will sell out, so I implore you to get your tickets now. Come and experience some of the most creative uses of cotton balls in theater history. Come to be entertained and come willing to be made to think on many layers. Talking about issues of race - then and now - is not cut and dried and is more than just Black and White! Don't be a slave to your old ways of thinking!
My, oh my, what a beautiful day!
- Composer and Music Director: César Alvarez,
- Lester St. Louis,