An Octoroon

by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Joanna Settle
Featuring James Ijames, Justin Jain, Ed Swidey
Wilma Theater, Philadelphia
March 16, 2016 – April 10, 2016 

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[This is the fourth of five reviews for shows viewed in Philadelphia during the April 2016 annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]

(L-R) Justin Jain, James Ijames, Ed Swidey. Image by Alexander Iziliaev.
(L-R) Justin Jain, James Ijames, Ed Swidey. Image by Alexander Iziliaev.

A visit to one of the final performances of An Octoroon at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre with its heightened theatrical world crafted by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins out of source 1861 material by Dion Boucicault wrapped me happily in layers of history and prior productions and new nuances. A stunning afternoon in the theater.

The melodramatic source material, regarded as the first play to treat seriously the subject of slavery in the U.S. was written by a white 19th-century Irishman Boucicault while he lived in pre-Civil War New Orleans, and was first performed in the U.S. in 1859 and in London in 1861. Jacobs-Jenkins and the Wilma production team wrap the original story — of a slave-owning family who come into financial difficulties and a range of interests that support and thwart the lives of a black slave, an American Indian outsider, and a favored light-skinned one-eighth black (“octoroon”) family member — in minstrelsy, 20th-century design choices, and meta-theatrical elements. We see the source material through layers of history and double- and triple-casting and actors applying makeup on stage, acquiring the skin color and the character attributes of multiple personalities. And we are never allowed to lose track of the knowledge that the stories being told represent past and present simultaneously.

Boucicault’s original broke the color barrier portraying the impossible love between plantation owner George (James Ijames) and his octoroon cousin Zoe (Campbell O’Hare). (Casting provides several additional possible levels of commentary on Zoe’s small amount of black ancestry: the New York cast included a very light tan actress in this role while the Philadelphia production included an actress who appeared white.) The villain plantation manager M’Closky (Ijames again) tries to steal the plantation and in the bargain keeps the lovers apart. Slave women Dido (Taysha Canales) and Minnie (Jaylene Clark Owens) provide gossipy good humor that is layered atop the dire reality of their situation. The woman of the plantation house Dora (Maggie Johnson) sings exquisitely, embodies the lady of the manor sensibility in stunning period costume.

Jacobs-Jenkins casts himself, his writing inspiration, and an assistant for good measure into the texture of his play to provide commentary and dramaturgical analysis. Ijames announces himself as “the playwright” stripped to his underwear in the play’s initial moments — BJJ, the playwright of the current creation, who has assembled past and present into a new whole. A second character Playwright (Ed Swidey), an occasionally raging Irishman we can assume is Boucicault, offers additional details of the writer’s life. And an assistant to BJJ (Justin Jain) primarily does BJJ’s bidding but also comments occasionally. (For those following along with color keys, Ijanes is black and dons white face, Swidey is white and dons red face, and Jain is Asian-American and dons black face.)

I see the Wilma production of An Octoroon through the lens of my experiences with two prior stagings in New York (the Soho Rep production in spring 2014 and its Theatre for a New Audience transfer in early 2015). Mimi Lien‘s accordion reveal of a set in these original productions, pared to a white wall and cotton balls that are swept and blown about at key moments, and a music design comprised of a single cellist, forced laser focus on the words, the costumes (a marvelous hoop skirt, the tighty whities on the playwright character in the play’s initial moments) and a makeup design (white face, black face, red face) that highlighted and lampooned ideas of race. In the Philadelphia set design by Matt Saunders, Lien’s spare angles yield to a stage literally deconstructed — with holes dug in which set pieces and props are deposited from time to time, and ramps and a chicken coop appear which serve as pen for animals and people, and a runway on which a slave auction ultimately is held. And all the while, on the Wilma’s deep stage, the seven members of the musical group ILL DOOTS remain on stage, watching, lounging, and occasionally offering smashing driving melodies.

There are deaths on stage — e.g. a young slave killed by a plantation manager who has his eyes on the beautiful titular octoroon — and in projection of an explicit and familiar image of an early 20th century lynching. Live chickens in the coop that occupies stage right are a distraction at times when they wander out of eye sight, but the coops earn their place in the set design when they are put to a final human use.

We’re not allowed to see any of this action passively.  Nor should we. This text allows for many design interpretations but the meaning strikes home in any configuration. History and race and racial history are viscerally present.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 18, 2016)

Playwright | Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director | Joanna Settle
Set Design | Matt Saunders
Costume Design | Tilly Grimes
Lighting Design | Thom Weaver
Sound Design | Zachary Beattie-Brown
Choreographer | Ayo Jackson
Dramaturg | Nell Bang-Jensen

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