by Jody Key – Managing Editor — Photo Credits Casey Gardner Photography.
Race in America is a complex issue. Depending on who you are, your gender, the color of your skin, and your environmental upbringing set up the schema for your opinions on the issue. Because we are a melting pot, America has thus far survived the daunting task of working toward acceptance of others regardless of race, but not without scars and bruises. It’s a process that has been ongoing since our inception as a country and continues to be an issue in the forefront of today’s America. One way to effect change in the narrative of race is through artistic endeavor.
In 2014, playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s work An Octoroon premiered Off-Broadway and went on to become an Obie award winner for Best New American Play and what the New York Times called, “The decades’ most eloquent theatrical statement on race.” Jenkins is known for writing theatrical productions that are considered provocative, using theater as a vehicle to highlight issues with humor in a way that might make an audience feel somewhat uncomfortable and at the same time open up a dialogue that might effect change.
Jacobs-Jenkins himself stated, “I think part of what’s so provocative about my work, or what gets labeled as so provocative about my work – I wouldn’t say my work is so provoking in any conscious way – is that people feel that they can recognize the stereotypes I’m using. And I’m like right, the recognition of them means they exist within you as a concept. If these things were actually eradicated from our cultural spaces or effaced from our imaginary, these characters would fail, but they don’t. These characters are paying off references you’re encountering in your daily consumption.”
An Octoroon is an adaptation of The Octoroon, originally written in 1859 by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. Boucicault was famed for the art of melodrama. Jacobs-Jenkins skillfully retains the melodramatic style peppered with 21st-century cultural references. This is a story set in the Antebellum South — Louisiana to be exact. It’s a story rich with stereotypes of all races and turns things upside down as racial role-reversals are the order of the day.
The term “Octoroon” is considered dated and offensive, and refers to a person who is of one-eighth black ancestry. (source: Mirriam Webster Dictionary online)
For those who missed An Octoroon Off Broadway, now is your chance to enjoy it in Atlanta at Actor’s Express. Opening night played to a sold-out audience who enjoyed the pre-show antics of a silent stagehand in rabbit ears “B’rer Rabbit”, played by Curtis Lipsey, set to folk songs of the old south. Lipsey’s character is entertaining throughout and offers continuity between acts. He is an all knowing, all seeing presence–sometimes venturing into the audience to view the action, and eventually taking a part as a steamboat captain during a slave auction.
The opening of the play is unconventional, beginning with “The Playwrights” taking the stage in their underwear as if preparing in their dressing rooms for the production. Neal A. Ghant as BJJ — explains a conversation with his imaginary therapist who encouraged him to write the play– and Kyle Brumley –presumably a drunk Boucicault gives his testimony for writing his original version. This seemingly lighthearted opening sets the humorous tone for the production while at the same highlighting the deeper undertones that will be present throughout. It’s during this opening that the three actors prepare by sitting at their make-up tables, making up their faces for the parts they will portray. Both playwrights explain that this is necessary due to the erroneous statement that they couldn’t find actors to play the parts as cast. And so this study of race begins.
The audience is treated to the story of the Terrebone Plantation as it mourns the death of the former owner, Judge Peyton. The plantation’s matron is also on her deathbed, and the threat of sale of the plantation and slaves looms in the air. In addition, George, the inherently ignorant yet good-hearted nephew of Judge Peyton finds himself in a forbidden romance with the Judge’s illegitimate daughter, Zoe. Every melodrama has a villian, and the despicable plantation overseer, M’Closky, aims to take over the slaves and plantation, including Zoe.
The word Terrebone is of French derivation and means “Good Earth”–a thoughtfully chosen satyrical misnomer on the part of the playwright. This plantation is rich with characters that shock and delight the audience at the same time. It is said laughter is a response to surprise, and this play is surprising in its delivery of shockingly scathing and satyrical stereotypic humor. Jacobs-Jenkins’s genius is that he can write a play of this nature skillfully enough that the audience is accepting of the harsh truths it exposes.
Every performer in this play was brilliant, giving +100% to their roles. While we might dislike the stereotypes each character portrays, we can’t help but come to love most of them for the quirky humans they are, as we see that underneath the caricatures are people with feelings and emotions much like our own.
Neal A. Ghant’s portrayal as both antagonist (George) and protagonist (M’Closky) was mesmerizing as he was able to transform instantaneously from one character to another especially during a fight scene (kudos to fight captain Ryan Vo). On a deeper level, it could be argued that one person playing both characters appears to highlight the good and bad that can exist within each of us. Ghant gives his all to this performance and does a fabulous job throughout.
Kylie Brown as Zoe delivers a stellar melodramatic performance as the damsel in distress. Unlike most damsels, however, Zoe is also smart, compassionate, and complex. She understands her precarious position all too well and does what she can to maintain her freedom.
Brandy Sexton plays Dora, the quintessential southern belle. While seemingly superficial, Dora is a strong southern woman who knows what she wants and does her best to try and land the man and plantation of her dreams.
Kyle Brumley’s portrayal of Wahnotee is, on the surface, offensive at best reminding us of the cigar box Indian of the old west as portrayed so many times complete with toy aisle regalia and typical stances and ceremonial whooping. We come to find out he’s more than just an amalgam of white misconceptions, but a loyal friend and loved companion. Brumley does the character justice and helps us see beyond to the person inside the uncomfortable representation.
Ryan Vo performing in blackface as the slaves Paul (a house slave in his 70s) and Pete (a young slave and best friend to Wahnotee), is probably the most viscerally objectionable depiction, yet Vo adds an underscore of humanity to the roles. His Al Jolson style representations make us laugh in spite of ourselves and highlight the offensiveness of blackface in the American Theater. At the same time, Vo helps us see that behind the facade are endearing souls who are unfortunate victims of their circumstances.
Rounding out this amazing cast are the spectacular performances of Isake Akanke (Dido), Candy McLellan (Minnie), and Parris Sarter (Grace) as slaves on Terrebone. These three ladies dish gossip in hilarious fashion, but from a slave’s point of view–catching up on who is sold and bought. It’s strange to hear everyday conversation among women within the context of someone who is “owned”, yet it helps the audience understand the harsh reality of this condition. These three ladies were my personal favorite characters. The optimistic Minnie and down-to-earth Dido, both house slaves, in opposition with feisty Grace, who works in the fields, depict the class warfare that existed even among slaves. While these women provide comic relief, they also offer exposition and give insight into the thoughts and feelings of people who have little control over their own lives. The final realization among Minnie and Dido that no one is able to choose how they come into this world is poignant food for thought.
In addition to wonderful performances, Director Donya K. Washington in her Actor’s Express Debut gives wonderful vision to Jacob-Jenkins masterpiece. Scenic designer Leslie Taylor frames the story with a set that evokes classic low-budget melodramatic theater. Costume designer April Andrew does an elegant job of pairing antebellum costumes with subtle touches of 21st-century garb. Zach Murphy’s lighting design is brilliant in inspiring the proper emotion for each scene, and Chris Lane’s sound design punctuates the story’s continuity, taking the traditional southern folk songs and remixing them with an edgy hip-hop beat.
As audiences familiar with this theatrical company have come to expect, once again Actor’s Express has assembled a spectacular production. Be prepared to be delightfully entertained as well as deeply moved, especially during the simply executed yet thought-provoking 4th act. An Octoroon is a must-see for Atlanta theatre audiences. Tickets are selling out, and the theater has open seating, so get your tickets ASAP and arrive early for the best seats.
An Octoroon runs from January 26-February 24, 2019. Tickets are available at https://www.actors-express.com/