Fort Worth — It is difficult to nail down precisely what it is about Stage West’s regional premiere production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon—a dizzyingly exaggerated commentary on racial politics and race relations in America, using hilariously uncomfortable taboos and clichés to push audience members into a heady state of existential reflection—that is so stimulating.
An Octoroon is both a comedic retelling and a thorough dismantling of the 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. In his largely forgotten biggest hit, Boucicault tells the story of a slave plantation in Louisiana that is deeply in debt, weaving in a furtive love affair between the young proprietor and a slave for whom the play is named—a housemaid who is one-eighth black.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ meta-theatrical reimagination turns the original on its head, using arresting imagery and carefully chaotic representations of race to undermine the construct all together. Director Akin Babatundé has assembled a brilliantly diverse cast that attracted an audience almost as diverse to opening night of the final show of Stage West’s season.
Upon entering the theater, the audience is immediately bombarded by set designer Bob Lavallee’s heavily poignant concept: dozens of floor-length nooses hanging from the ceiling amidst tufts of cotton strewn across the stage (Jacobs-Jenkins’ stage directions only call for “an unfortunate-looking theatre”). The metaphorical nuances are heavy handed right from the get-go, but one must appreciate the double functionality as the play-within-a-play commences and the visage of a proscenium stage at an antebellum-era Louisiana plantation is hoisted up by the very same nooses like an artfully constructed pop-up book for children.
By the time we’ve arrived in this realm, we’ve already been taken on a rollercoaster of emotion, and what’s more, been made to feel almost silly for being shocked. The opening diatribes given by the characters of BJJ (Jacobs-Jenkins) and Playwright (Boucicault), played respectively by Ryan Woods and Justin Duncan with thoughtful dynamisms, set up the ensuing sensationalism of the show as we watch the concepts of race and identity become completely subverted. The players boldly traverse conventional boundaries of identity to play multiple cross-racial roles. Before our eyes we witness a black man, a white man, and a Latino man (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez; this role calls for an actor who can pass for Native American) transform as they apply face paint.
Shortly into the first act we hear the N-word from the character Pete, performed by Ramirez with comedic gusto. The tension in the room is palpable, as audience members of all races seem at a loss at how to feel. But then, as if a natural function of this work, that tension melts away, almost as if one should be embarrassed for feeling weird about it.
That is what I personally loved about this play and this production. The cast holds nothing back, giving the audience permission to go through this process over and over again. In doing so, they and the director accomplish Jacobs-Jenkins’ vision of keeping the audience uncomfortably entertained, never finding it necessary to answer questions about how we, as Americans, arrived at where we are now.
Kristen White, who expertly portrays the bombastic and outspoken houseslave Minnie, draws on every imaginable modern stereotype of the cartoonish black woman in a way that is so over-the-top that it is not just hilarious, but deeply thought-provoking. In contrast, Morgana Wilborn brings an air of Shakespearean tragedy to the production through her portrayal of the title character, Zoe—our octoroon. She is poised and demure in her delivery of emotionally thick prose with exaggerated melancholy throughout.
All of this is juxtaposed by the almost nightmarish interludes featuring the folkloric, trickster stock character Br’er Rabbit—one of the tropes the character BJJ chides in his opening monologue—played hauntingly by Christopher Lew. Add the characters of a Southern Belle, Dora (Nikki Cloer); the Native American Wahnotee (Duncan); and the slaves Minnie, Dido (Bretteney Beverly), and Grace (Camille Monae), who are given power that Boucicault’s original didn’t afford them; and you’ve got a play that dares to explore all of the corners of America’s subconscious mind.
It isn’t the narrative, nor even the strong performances delivered by each cast member, that make Stage West’s An Octoroon well worth seeing. It is the complete bastardization of traditional thinking—and the commitment to making fun of the whole process itself—that makes this a provocative and productive way to spend two and a half hours.