Zany adaptation of 19th Century Melodrama
It is difficult to categorize, exactly what Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon, was. First of all, Artswest’s current show, was a “genre bending” adaptation of the 1859 melodrama The Octoroon by Dion Boucinault, a scion of a prominent Protestant family of Huguenot descent from Dublin, who had immigrated to the U.S. The Octoroon, was itself adapted from a novel Quadraroon, written by another Irish Protestant immigrant to the U.S., Thomas Mayne Reid.
Obviously, two Protestants, who grew up in Catholic Ireland, then immigrated to the U.S. knew about being perceived as, and perceiving oneself as, “the other.” In the both versions of the play, Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner and a quadraroon (1/4 African, ¾ European) had been raised as the daughter of the white plantation owning family, but is legally a slave. Therefore she is perceived as “the other” by normative society and also by the enslaved or marginalized community. In the ante-bellum South, her situation was next-to hopeless. So she suffered from “double otherness” a device which effectively demonstrates how social relationships become strained when racial barriers are present.
The melodramatic plot of the original version of The Octoroon is a mixture of Jane Austen, George Elliot, Dickens and Gone with the Wind. The conflict for a young man about to inherit a debt-ridden plantation, being courted by a rich rather repulsive heiress, but in love with a beautiful woman with no dowry and an ambiguous legal position, is a standard 19th Century chick-lit plot. In this case, it is all compounded by a greedy malicious former overseer, who murders and steals his way to take possession of the estate and our beautiful octoroon heroine, Zoe. Our hero, George, a stranger to Southern laws and customs, is willing to sacrifice everything in order to do the right thing and save his African American slaves from being sold to the former overseer, who is notoriously cruel. It was a winning formula in those days, and was a long-running touring production. On its own, I doubt it would be palatable to a modern audience.
However, Jacobs-Jenkins adaptation spices it up by adding a prologue where the star, Lamar Legend, has a super funny Woody Allenish monologue about Woody Allen’s favorite topic:psycho therapy. Interspersed throughout the play are other gimmicks. Legend and actor Mike Dooly who plays the playwright, break the fourth wall and directly comment to the audience about the play. Legend, a fair-skinned African American plays “White Face,” and adds some extremely well-executed elements of mime and physical comedy. Jose Abaoag plays “Black Face” and there is a lot of general merriment along with the horror
The courting scenes between the heiress and our hero were in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Even though the acting styles of different scenes were very eclectic, it was well executed and well acted, especially by Lamar Legend, who was double cast as both the hero, George and the villain McClosky. He is a finely tuned actor with the physical ability of a dancer/mime and the vocal ability of a young Laurence Olivier.
Although the wacky scenes were enjoyable and made me laugh along with everybody else, the really compelling scenes were the scenes that actually portrayed the emotional reactions of the female house servants to the realities of slavery. The expert performances by Dedra D. Woods, Jéhan Òsanyìn and Jazmyne Waters were not devoid of humor, but they seemed the most real in terms of universal human emotions and they did not have to resort to anything gimmicky.
In the kitchen, they discussed the fear and consequences of non-consensual sex with masters, fear of being sold off the plantation, total geographic isolation from the world outside the plantation, but fear of running away, legal prohibitions against literacy but “secret readers,” fear of being separated from one’s companions, the hierarchical structure between house slaves vs. field hands, conflicting loyalties towards their owners and worst of all, having their children sold.
One of the most poignant indictments of slavery was how they physically changed in the presence of their masters. While alone in the kitchen they were saucy, took up physical space and were not afraid to look each other in the eye. As soon as a white person entered, they physically collapsed into themselves and kept their eyes glued to the floor. One of the characters Pete, played by Jose Abaoag, demonstrated how enslaved people internalize and adapt their master’s negative view of them and behave accordingly, in order to gain the necessary approval, to ensure survival.
Chacun à son gout, (To each his own) as the French would say. I did not find the other scenes of the play un-enjoyable, on the contrary they were really really funny, especially Mr. Lamar, but when a reviewer wakes up the next morning with a burning desire to analyze, write about and share their reactions to certain scenes and not others, that speaks volumes. In particular, I was moved by the sisterhood displayed by the fierce maneuvering of the two kitchen servants to stay together, when they were being sold.
At two hours and forty five minutes the play was much too long, there was LANGUAGE and violence but it wasn’t offensive or gratuitous. It was zany, but the performance of Lamar Legend was quite frankly not something one sees everyday, so I would recommend this play.
An Octoroon. Artswest. 4718 California Ave. SW 98116 ( West Seattle) Thur, Fri, Sat. 7:30 pm. Sun. 3:00 pm Thru May 13. Tickets: https://artswest.secure.force.com/ticketInfo: http://www.artswest.org/theatre-plays/an-octoroon/
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