by Nancy Churnin, Theater Critic, Dallas Morning News
"It's hard to move ahead until you know where you've been.
That seems to be the point of Stage West's regional premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' 2015 Obie Award-winning An Octoroon. But while Jacobs-Jenkins raises the issue of what a contemporary black artist is to make of an 1859 hit called The Octoroon, the play's conversation about the journey of our country's attitude about race is more often muddled than it is troubling and witty.
The original play, by Dion Boucicault, is about a young woman, Zoe, who doesn't feel she has the right to love George because he's white and she is one-eighth black. There are a lot of melodramatic twists and turns in a script riddled with ugly stereotypes about blacks and Native Americans. Zoe, while raised as a free woman, is legally a slave. A shady, loathed man, M'Closky, finds out and plots to force the plantation into foreclosure so the slaves will be sold, including Zoe, whom he intends to buy and force to be his mistress.
Jacobs-Jenkins sets the table well, with the two playwrights as characters, Ryan Woods as the angst-ridden contemporary BJJ and Justin Duncan as the brash, 19th-century Irish Boucicault. But instead of having the modern playwright challenge the choices made by the 19th-century one, or having the 19th-century characters stop and question their choices from a contemporary perspective, Jacobs-Jenkins loses his way in the thick theatricalities of Boucicault's plot.
Under the nimble direction of Akiń Babatundé, a charismatic Woods plays multiple roles with finesse, including George and M'Closky, both in white face, at one point facing off against each other in the same scene. Morgana Wilborn is touching as the virtuous Zoe, but her character's self loathing regarding her heritage is so cringeworthy, you wish the playwright would give her character a chance to stop, enter the contemporary world and give Zoe's 19th-century self a modern intervention.
Ditto for Nikki Cloer, who gives a funny turn as Dora, the flouncing white Southern belle. There's a wasted opportunity for a feisty scene with how a contemporary version of that character would dress down the racially tone-deaf woman who settles for being the unloved corner of the doomed triangle.
In contrast, it seems freeing for the actors playing the playwrights to break character. How refreshing it would be to hear the women and more of the characters overall do the same.
Jacobs-Jenkins is to be applauded for taking on big racial themes in a way that parallels how Spike Lee handles his current BlackKklansman film. Stage West, too, deserves credit for taking on tough topics that merit discussion. And while the play feels unfinished, the good news is that there's a talkback after most performances of An Octoroon. If you feel, as this critic does, that the play ends before it says what it needs to say, you may find resolution by participating in a conversation that follows the show."