All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Beyond being entertaining and thought-provoking, Branden Jabobs-Jenkin’s “An Octoroon” is an experience. An exciting, exhilarating experience that is compounded, with exponential interest, by Joanna Setlle’s variegated, perceptive production, a landmark performance by one Mr. James Ijames, and an elegant turn by Campbell O’Hare.
Yes, Jacobs-Jenkins’s work is flawed. Sometimes it is intentionally, and hilariously, self-conscious. Sometimes the youthful author is feeling his Cheerios and riffing for his own amusement, and possible vanity.
No matter. The Wilma production of “An Octoroon” is a piece to savor. It preserves enough of an old 19th century melodrama, Dion Boucicault’s “The Octoroon,” which with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Our American Cousin” were the hits of the pre- and post-Civil War years, to show its viability, and datedness, as a play for modern audiences while deconstructing it in a fierce but respectful, intelligent way to show the seeds of American racism and attitudes that have been handed down through generations, before and after the prolific Boucicault’s era, to flower, if with fewer but yet stubborn, troubling petals, today.
To demonstrate Jacobs-Jenkins’s wit, he has ac character named BJJ, a black playwright that is one of Ijames’s three personae — Note the initials, intentional and pretty brilliant self-consciousness; good thing Branden’s name isn’t Victor — promise not to deconstruct Boucicault’s opus even as he explains why the 1859 “Octoroon” is difficult to perform today for personnel reasons. (No white actor on a regional or educational level will agree to play characters who are so blatantly racist or blind to common humanity (solution to follow.)
To demonstrate his vain self-consciousness and thumbs-under-the-suspenders pride, Jacobs-Jenkins has Boucicault appear and mocking berate the audience for not remembering him or this popular play of its time. The appearances of BJJ and Boucicault serve a purpose. BJJ is complaining to his therapist, a white woman, about his problems with mounting a production of “An Octoroon.” Boucicault complains to the house about the obscurity he finds so ignoble and undeserved after decades of fame. (“London Assurance,” “The Colleen Bawn,” “The Corsican Brothers,” “Confidence,” and “The Shaughraun,” especially the first, were bigger hits and more frequently seen in the 20th century than “The Octoroon,” which Boucicault gave a definite article while Jacobs-Jenkins cunningly turns indefinite for his design. Since self-consciousness is a theme, can you tell my junior paper for Dr. George McFadden was on Irish theater?) Boucicault’s is sad and angry bit of pouting over his acquired neglect. His rantings and BJJ’s dilemmas only inform what’s to come, BJJ’s staging of “The Octoroon” as part of “An Octoroon,” and a grand pageant that entertains on the melodramatic level while stunning with the comic literary and attendant social commentary with which Jacobs-Jenkins infuses BJJ’s production.
Remember that BJJ encountered obstacles while casting his “Octoroon.” He overcomes them by casting himself as the white characters. Ijames, clad in a white wife-beater and tighty whiteys, showing BJJ is bent on revealing all but the most intimate to his therapist, adds white-face greasepaint to the mix and is set to play the inheritor of a highly mortgaged ante-Bellum, Louisiana plantation and the scoundrel, a true 19th century Snidely Whiplash type, who longs to foreclose on said planttion and a claim a particular slave, Zoe, an octoroon, as his own. To the credit of Ijames, Settle, and Jacobs-Jenkins, the villain, M’closky, never goes into histrionic nyah-ah-ah’s as he focuses on the rent, the rent, but is more insidious by trying to be suave and superior while being unable to hide his coarseness, temper, greed, lust, oiliness, or disdain for decency Louisiana law wouldn’t make him adhere to anyhow. M’Closky even flouts the laws Louisiana might enforce.
As Ijames, who is black, dons his white face, Ed Swidey, who goes from railing like an Irishman one cup from irresponsible drunkenness as Boucicault to playing an Native American, or “Injun” character, Wahnotee, in “The Octoroon, smears his pasty, bearded cheeks with mercurochrome red paint while Justin Jain, who is Asian, gets out his grease stick and turns into a pair of different but equally stereotypical black slaves. The scorecard is a black actor puts on whiteface to play Caucasian parts, a white actor wears bright red makeup to play a Native American, and an Asian actor is in blackface, coal black like a minstrel, to play African-American slaves. That marvelous young actor, Aaron Bell, adds to the masquerade by putting a giant rabbit head to play Br’er Rabbit, a main figure from Southern folk tales, in time immortalized by Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, that Jacobs-Jenkins and Settle use as both a symbol and for comic commentary, and slicking back his hair to play a rather regal and dapper Cajun paddle boat owner.
In these guises, we see how one man plays many parts, in his own life and on the theatrical stage. Skin color is pigment it can be adapted by make-up, chemical peels, torturous operations, etc. It can be counterfeited, and it can be all too categorizing, classifying, and real as much of society, and all of the Southern American society depicted in “The Octoroon,” assert firm and binding judgments (pre-judgments?) based on it. “An Octoroon” points up a lot. How silly that people of one pigment could lay a judgment of inequality and, worse, inferiority or savagery, upon people of another pigment! And to an extent that allows subjugation as chattel! Yet, in Boucicault’s melodrama and in Jacobs-Jenkins’s arch borrowing of it, that is exactly the case, as it is when BJJ has to speak uncomfortably about race to his conventionally probing therapist. How sillier yet, as if comparatives come near applying or meaning anything with this stratum of silliness, when Zoe, the daughter of the plantation owner, but by a slave who was herself a quadroon (one quarter Negro), and therefore an octoroon (one eighth Negro), is by statute considered to be a slave although she was raised as a Southern lady by her father and his wife, whom Zoe regards as a mother while not denying her own, would deservedly be the heir to her father’s estate if she were a male (another conundrum for another play) and not octoroon, and has won two hearts, both of white men, while not being disdained by black slaves, fed, worked, and whipped as field hands and houseworkers, who, in Boucicault’s part of the opus, received better than usual treatment on Zoe’s father’s plantation.
In Boucicault’s hands, the craziness is pointed out, but more in Zoe’s case than that of other, totally Negroid, slaves who should not need to be an octoroon or a rich man’s daughter to earn our attention and sympathy. Boucicault is not quite an abolitionist, but he comments on the inhumanity of “the peculiar institution” and the hardship of having families torn asunder by sales as property and the corporal punishment, and extension to lynching, that is a common happenstance of 1859 and, sorrowfully, later. And later. And later, as in even now when a gun has replaced the rope. Zoe becomes sympathetic in Boucicault because she is barely black and regarded as the daughter of the estate and full member of the “master’s” family. One Ijames character, George, loves Zoe and is willing to marry her. Another, M’Closkey, wants to acquire Zoe as a slave, her classification in Louisiana, especially since the emancipation papers Zoe’s father wrote were not notarized or put into effect while he could enact them. George has the same designs as his uncle in regards to Zoe’s freedom, but M’Closkey would make Zoe an involuntary concubine doing her owner’s bidding, while George would make her his equal partner in life.
Melodrama, you gotta love it. As you have to account for and appreciate the time in which it’s written and its incompleteness or convenience on several scores. Jacobs-Jenkins supplies the modernity and doe so mostly by respecting “The Octoroon” at its time while using lampoon deftly to create a modern prism through which to view Boucicault’s story.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’s hands, “silliness” is pointed up as ridiculous and absurb. But real, genuine, and the way of the world. The accepted, enforced, and rationalized way of the world. Boucicault, in melodrama, lets you see the situation and feel the heartbreak one slave, an octoroon has, without really including all slaves or people discriminated against because of color or ethnic origin. Jacobs-Jackson, in parody, lampoons history and its repercussions. He knows thing happen within a course and what is accepted and common in one age looks unconscionable in another. He also sheds a contemporary light on an age-old matter and show parallels between the habit of one time and the thinking of another.
One clever way he does this is via the talk that goes on between three slaves who are the archetypical literary/historical models of their lot. Dido, played so wittily by Taysha Canales; Minnie, recently brought from the field to the house and given humorous treatment by Jaylene Clark Owens; and Grace, who remains in the field with cruder ways and is played with edge by Alina John, speak among themselves in contemporary ways that point up their resignation to being what they are in a society permits it, slaves.
Jacobs-Jenkins gives Dido, Minnie, and Grace their share of complaining and grousing. More astutely and more entertainingly, he has them idly gossiping about who is doing what on the plantation, as people would over any fence, or any street corner, and in any mall parking lot.
Dido, Minnie, and Grace discuss their everyday life, what’s happening at the plantation home, what slaves have been sold, even on neighboring estates, what slaves are pregnant, who’s sleeping with whom, and who doesn’t know about it yet. They even classify other slaves by calling them “nasty” or terms akin to “ghetto” that show the taxonomy of prejudice within minorities or oppressed groups.
Slavery is the women’s life, and they talk about as such. Much like doctors discuss medical conditions or lawyers and judges conversing about jail. There’s no panic or idea that something is unusual, strange, or even imperfect. The patient or poor soul caught in the criminal justice system may be confused and riddled with anxiety, but the doctor and court personnel find bypasses and incarceration routine. It’s a ho-hum part of their day. We cut ’em up, you lock ’em up, and we go home while they recuperate, we hope, or stew in a cage. It’s called the banality of the familiar. All is so comme il faut, it has no mystery wonder, or sense of being bizarre or special, let alone cataclysmic and disintegrating.
Dido, Minnie, and Grace are just as matter-of-fact as those doctors and lawyers when they discuss slavery and plantation life. It’s their day-in and day-out. They are unimpressed/unaware they are a current anomaly ripe for intense later study. The byplay between them in jaunty and filled with laughter, digs, sarcasm, surprise, bewilderment, rolling eyes, and all that daily palaver about daily life looks and sounds like. They are co-workers spreading the news at the water cooler about Accounting or how someone left for another job. Canales, Clark Owens, and John handle it masterfully and are deliciously entertaining when they go into their riffs. Clark Owens has a sequence at the top of the second act that is especially delectable. She is a hoot as she dances and imaginatively shows what life would be like if she’s sold to a ship owner and spends days on the fresh waters of the Mississippi, with port calls in New Orleans, instead of being stooped over cotton in the master’s fields or laundry in his wash house, however benevolent he is in comparison to owners one could have.
“An Octoroon” is loaded with details, bits, gambits, jokes, and melodrama. It may be too crammed. The first thing I heard about it was, “It’s confusing.” The person who saw it with me hated every minute of it and found it jumbled and hard to follow.
Those opinions indicate “An Octoroon” is not for all tastes and will be as controversial as a play and production as it is in subject matter. It is chocked with ideas and images, but it is accessible and logically, if loosely, constructed. Jacobs-Jenkins, abetted by Settle, Ijames, and company make all crystal clear. There’s just so much to cover so many genres and temporal sensibilities intersecting. The presence and use of Br’er Rabbit alone can be the subject of some future scholar’s junior paper.
“An Octoroon” is not without flaws. Jacobs-Jenkins makes a show of saying and showing some things that become gratuitous and ostentatious, as if he couldn’t control his wit or passion. A couple of these instances, that occur mostly while the author is parodying Boucicault’s melodrama, might fly in some productions, but Jacobs-Jenkins and Settle have been so adroit as keeping all arch, subtle, and satiric at the highest levels, lapses stick out and call attention to themselves.
The main point is Jacobs-Jenkins is a Major League brain who writes for the theater and makes the theatrical his metier. Settle reinforces the rampant, exuberant theatricality of “An Octoroon” so the Wilma production is as impressive and as laudable at Jacobs-Jenkins’s remarkable, exciting play.
Jacobs-Jenkins’s mind, and Settle’s skillful sensibility, are only part of the equation.
Settle’s production is blessed with James Ijames in the lead, and the actor is nothing short of, and perhaps, if possible, beyond extraordinary.
You don’t only see Ijames as a deft farceur who finds the comic in a line or situation and finds ways to inculcate it whether that leads to laughing out loud or seeing the humor, perhaps mean, shameful humor, in a circumstance that is special but that everyone takes for granted. Ijames is swooningly romantic is scenes in George is so obviously charmed and smitten with Zoe. The actor proves his skill by the admiration and respect that never quite goes to love or ardor for another character, Dora, who loves George and can save him from hardship if he could return her affections.
Ijames is an honest actor. The hurt or amusement on his face tells a lot, even though the white face and two ridiculous but appropriate wigs that denote George and M’Closkey.
Ijames creates palpable intensity every time he is on stage. Even at BJJ in his underwear, he brings endless levels of texture to anything he utters or communicates via gesture, facial expression, eyes, or body language. His performance alone is worth the price of admission to “An Octoroon.”
Campbell O’Hare is the image of graciousness and Southern gentility as Zoe, a slave by status and scorned by general society because she is not purely Caucasian, but brought up to be a lady and the mistress of all she surveys.
O’Hare’s Zoe is always sweet and direct. She has no airs or haughtiness and is empathetic to all in the midst. She looks of her father’s wife as a mother, but she knows the plight fn her own mother who continued as a slave, favored or not, and who feared being separated from loved ones by sale and proclivities of taskmasters who might not care about her status. Even the coitus that made Zoe was under duress. Zoe is aware of this, and O”Hare, resplendent in a pastel gold gown and with the nimblest and daintiest of cultivated steps, is the epitome of class, breeding, and fellowship. Melanie Wilkes with more breeziness and love for the world.
O’Hare is a joy to behold. Her Zoe fills the stage with light and makes it immediately clear why George should fall in love with her at first sight, and even Dido, Minnie, and Grace should like her in spite of themselves.
Justin Jain is as marvelous as the shuck-and-jiving, happy-go-lucky mischievous Paul as he is as the grumbling, obsequious old slave, Pete. With Pete, he will be whoever someone expects him to be. He’ll become cooperative and conspiratorial with white folks while being persnickety and carping among his fellow slaves. As Paul. Jain reminds of Topsy, always lively and jumping his arms stretched out and his legs coming inward at the knee to form a diamond in midair.
Also gymnastic is Aaron Bell as the interloping Br’er Rabbit, who surveys scenes as if he’s trying to judge or understand them while seeming as invisible as his future 20th century counterpart, Mary Chase’s Harvey.
Jacobs-Jenkins insinuates Br’er Rabbit in sequences when the slaves are jabbering themselves. In his mask, Bell gives the bunny inquisitive stances and hold his head in ways that actually comment on the action at hand.
Ed Swidey is his reliable self at Wahnotee, being stereotypical to friendly Indians from early Hollywood movies while clearly showing his loyalty and filial affection for Paul and Zoe.
Maggie Johnson, wearing a gorgeous black and white striped dress with exquisite tailoring by costumer Tilly Grimes, is a different kind of Southern Belle from O’Hare’s Zoe, but Johnson plays her effectively and with intelligence. Johnson’s Dora is more womanly, worldly, and socially schooled than Zoe. Her sophistication rings in contrast. Johnson is wise to always keep Dora cool and sincere. She is never bitter or unladylike about being second to Zoe in George’s affections.
Tilly Grimes’s creations are a joy and wonder throughout Settle’s production. I’ve praised her gowns for Zoe and Dora. Her maroon suit for Br’er Rabbit turns wittily into the suit Bell wears so stylishly when he morphs into the steamboat captain bidding, somewhat out of human kindness and charity for George’s slaves. Her pale blue jacket for George and ink black villain’s coat for M’Closky not only hit the mark visually, but they make for a wonderful juxtaposition when Ijames wears half of each costume (and appropriate half-wig and half-mustache) when he assays George and the evil slavedriver in one scene. Matt Saunder’s set shows the destruction of the South and deconstruction of Boucicault’s play with the torn trap boards that serve many purposes center stage, and a lovely miniature scale model of the plantation house on a bare platform far stage right. Underneath that platform is a pen where two live chickens frolic and sometimes squawk throughout the show. Canales makes her entrance carrying one of the chickens.
Thom Weaver’s lighting is various and often evocative, serving at times like an extra character. Music by Ill Doots is rhythmic but is usually too highly miked for lyrics, that range from sharp to simplistic and comme il faut, to be heard without making an effort. Avo Jansen Jackson earns kudos for her choreography.
“An Octoroon” always engages and provokes thought. Curiously, it stays on such an intellectual plane it rarely moves one or stirs emotions. Humor supersedes pathos, even when pathos is called for, by miles. This is markedly pointed up it in a scene that culminates with a black-and-white print of two black men who have been lynched while a white crowd looks on smug, smiling, and satisfied. The image should shock on two levels. The first is the stark depiction of men hanging dead in their nooses while others are content and even elated. The other has to do how integral photography, a novelty in Matthew Brady’s 1859, is to both Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins.
The photo, which comes on suddenly, had definite impact but does not jar or shock to the effect I’d guess to be intended on expected. Media Theatre’s Jesse Cline elicited more passion and gasps with slides of a Confederate flag he used in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and an image of Lyndon Johnson that watched a Vietnam battle from a rear screen in “Dogfight.”
After the lynching photo suddenly comes on, a character asks, “Are you moved yet?” or “Are you emotional?” or something akin. The question is Brechtian. The inquisitor intuits the answer. But that answer is “no.” For all I was engaged in “An Octoroon” and admired its sweep, daring, and fun, my brain always was master over my heart. Even when Zoe makes a harrowing decision or Ijames melts the audience with his expressions of love and grief, my emotions — and I cry every time Jean Valjean gives Cosette that doll — were never affected.
Isn’t that strange?
“An Octoroon” runs though Sunday, April 10 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, April 3, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, April 6. Tickets, thanks to a generous grant from The Wyncote Foundation, are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or by visiting www.wilmatheater.org. Grade: A-