by Paul Torres -
SGN Contributing Writer
Through May 13
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' melodramatic An Octoroon is a risky production. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that the Seattle audience stayed after its intermission, but then I was pleased to be a part of a community of people who aren't afraid to view some controversial art. However, listening to their comments during the intermission was a mind-bending experience. 'It's so topical' was one comment that stood out. As if a play about America's racial issues are simply a 'current topic' even though this play is based on The Octoroon written by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault and originally produced in 1859. Now, in 2018, the themes still frustratingly resonate with its stark and shocking subject matter of volatile race relations.
Before the play even begins, a stagehand props a sign with 'Trigger Warning' on a red chair. After this, with NWA's 'F*ck the Police' playing, it lets loose on a host of forbidden topics; characters in black face, red face, and white face who act out in their racial stereotypes. Black slaves are sassy and shuffle around, the Native American craves rum, and whites are shallow, cruel, and greedy. The audience doesn't know whether to laugh, gasp, or nervously chomp their ice from their cocktails, which the guy sitting next to me did. The language and situations are highly charged and ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery deserves all the high praise they can get for producing this. Artistic Director Mathew Wright is setting benchmarks with his choice here.
An Octoroon opens with a Prologue with BJJ, an excellent Lamar Legend, who talks about his sessions with his therapist and how he is consumed with his own version of The Octoroon that he is planning to stage. The white actors all quit because they can't handle the salacious script. He decides to paint his face white and wear a blond wig and do the roles himself. The Playwright (who represents original author Boucicault), portrayed by Mike Dooly, belittles BJJ and tells of how he misses the days of 'real theatre' as he paints his face in red makeup to play a non-descript Native American. Meanwhile his dutiful Intern, played by Jose Abaoag, nods and placates the Playwright's blathering as he himself paints his face with black makeup readying for his own roles.
This production is the story of the financial downfall of the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana and what happens to its property, which includes the slaves. Fancy gentleman and plantation heir George, Legend in white face, arrives to the estate and falls for young Zoe, brilliantly played by Jessi Little. Zoe is the octoroon from the play's title, which means she is one-eighth Black. George is supposed to be the suitor for high-class heiress Dora Sunnyside (Heather Persinger as a fading Southern belle). Meanwhile, Terrebonne's malicious overseer M'Closky (also played by Legend) is determined to get Terrebonne and its assets, which includes Zoe, all to his evil self. Zoe becomes the center of the complications and what ensues is classic mayhem, misunderstandings, and murder, 'so melodramatic' commented one patron during the intermission.
Legend deserves an award for this demanding role, not only because of the three characters he portrays, but because of the sheer energy it requires to play two of the characters in just the slave auction scene alone. It was downright hilarious at times. He also deserves kudos for his passion to play the central role on such an audacious production.
Throughout the production a tall lanky rabbit character comes out and moves about with odd gestures and body movements. In my research, I found out this rabbit represents the Br'er Rabbit. To slaves, he represents something that is cunning and clever. In An Octoroon it represents an entity that is all-seeing, all-knowing, wise, and ultimately a salvation for the characters and a moral release for the audience. It reminded me of Donnie Darko or David Lynch's Inland Empire rabbit characters. Both of these film references, I am sure, are apt here in terms of this production's surreal offensiveness. This is especially true when strains of an old song like 'Beautiful Dreamer' is sung as if it's an ode to the aging antebellum days; Beautiful dreamer (a disembodied character croons) / Wake unto me / Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee.
Director Brandon J. Simmons has a brazen production at hand here. Simmons' work complements Jacobs-Jenkins' brilliant script. Simmons guides a diverse and talented cast who meet the challenge of this brash material. The use of the N word is so off-hand here (to coincide with its era's vernacular) that it's as natural as the ubiquitous swampy heat the characters complain so much about. To be a part of this production is taking a brave leap creatively and it's not a surprise that Seattle has the acting talent to take it on.
The entire cast enlivens every scene they are in. Dooly is a standout in multiple roles. Besides Playwright, he is great with his other characters of Wahnotee (in red face) and Lafouche, a white auctioneer (still in red face' as comically told by him, it's because he travelled in an open carriage in the heat). Abaoag, the Intern in the Prologue, is superb. He also plays Pete, an 'old' house slave, and young slave, Paul, Wahnotee's devoted friend. The mosaic cast is rounded out by Dedra D. Woods (Minnie, a house slave), Jéhan Òsanyìn (Dido, a fellow slave), and Jazmyne Waters (Grace, the pregnant slave). This production also features drummer Michael Gebhart whose steady beats add intrigue, drama, and comedy with rimshots, rattles, and cymbal crashes.
Scenic Designer Julia Hayes Welch work here is essential. The set does more than dress the stage, it inhabits, breathes, and even attacks. A huge wall of cubbies faces the audiences filled with bric-a-brac like sailing rope (for nefarious purposes in this play), a shotgun, an assortment of clocks stopped in time, tarnished platters set up display style, bottles, open umbrellas, a rocking horse, a birdcage, etc. Are these signs of wealth? Or are these signs of wealth in decline? An Octoroon expertly unpacks all these physical and psychological relics in an explosive manner.
An Octoroon manages to shock, delight and entertain, and above it all, describes humanity, a rare breed of American humanity to be precise. It examines the savageness of a bygone culture that still festers in today's American society. Are we all not one-eighths of our past, a past we'd rather forget? Are we one-eighths of a monstrous history that we should remember and keep up in our own cubbies and display like a keepsake stopped in time to keep us in check as a moral reminder? An Octoroon brings all this alive and let's nobody off the hook, no matter what face we put on.
For more information and tickets, call (206) 938-0339 or visit http://www.artswest.org/. ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery is located at 4711 California Ave SW at the Alaska Junction in West Seattle, a short walk from the Metro C Line bus stop.
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