Reviewed Performance: 6/16/2018 | Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
How do you feel? Can a playwright create something that makes you feel something they want?
Such are questions many playwrights ponder as they create stories and themes for their plays. It was a prime motivation behind the romanticism movement and led to a melodramatic style of performance many of us grew up watching. While audiences drink in the spectacle of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon at Stage West in Fort Worth as a play about race relations, and there is some of that, the play is more complicated. It's an exploration of the place of theater in social discourse and our continued embrace of stereotypes amid grand political struggles. It pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable in public performance. What can a playwright do to push make us think or feel a certain way?
An Octoroon is a play about another play, The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault. In writing that play 7-years after Harriet Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Boucicault became arguably the greatest American melodramatic playwright. But Branden Jacobs-Jenkins toyed with that story by ripping into its guts with Brechtian tools and absurdist presentation to give audiences a view into his own creative process. Brecht's Epic Theater tried to destroy any emotional pull on an audience by revealing the back-stage processes, while Boucicault's melodrama created spectacle and stereotypical good versus evil storylines in order to create strong emotional responses. This was a struggle Jacobs-Jenkins worked through with his An Octoroon. In the process he strutted out the unique American issues of racial and cultural tension along with his own questions about being branded a "black playwright."
This style is complicated as a form to produce and takes extraordinarily talented artists to make it work. Akin Babatunde directed An Octoroon with a keen sense of melodramatic style and the creative struggle in artists. His first success had to be his use of designers who were willing to go to theatrical extremes for his vision.
When you enter a theater and see a space littered with stage debris, upturned chairs, equipment and materials looking like someone forgot to clean up after rehearsal, you know someone's been collaborating. Set Designer Bob Lavallee did extraordinary work, along with Prop/Set Decor Designer Lynn Lovett, to make this chaotic stage picture. There were ropes with nooses hanging from the grid, an ominous foreshadowing of the story. There were backdrops and curtains laying everywhere and set pieces from some by-gone production. But out of this mess rose a theater stage that included backdrops looking like an old west theater view of a plantation. Painted backdrops, apparently by Scenic Artist, Justin Rhoads, had the quality of expensive drops seen at the big halls. They were intricate and beautifully representative of a Louisiana plantation and other scenes.
Aaron Patrick DeClerk designed a costume plot that included period costumes from the 1859 portrayal of The Octoroon. The lavish, antebellum color schemes included subdued tans and greens along with a bright white southern belle gown and gentlemanly suits. These were combined with hats, hair pieces and face makeup, including black face, white face and red face. Jacobs-Jenkins, like Boucicault, portrays stereotypes and racial discrimination in a wide swath, including class struggle within the slave community and white plantation owners.
This dramatic set and costuming was revealed and highlighted with equally sensationalist colors, spots and shadows. Bryan Stevenson's light design was one of the more dramatic light plots I've seen in awhile. As that dark, dank chaotic stage mess slowly came to life, with actors pulling in pieces as they needed them, the lights came to life to create strong contrasts that added to a melodramatic feel. This style demands extremes.
A strong component of melodrama is a musical undercurrent. "Melodrama" originates from musical drama, though we have come to think of it as more histrionics. Sound Designer John Flores added a lot to this production. The sound mix was eclectic, from opening pre-show selections to energetic accompaniment, reminiscent of silent movies with their live piano running through the film. While music never called attention to itself, it set an atmosphere that swayed feelings in every moment.
The first to enter the stage chaos was Ryan Woods, tall, buff, majestic, who stood nearly naked by an incandescing ghost light. He stood first as BJJ, as in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the author. BJJ is the narrator who directs attention to obvious conditions in the setting and unveils creative struggles an author has creating the play. His vocal strength was off-set by some past therapist, for whom he voiced one side of a rapid-fire inner conversation. There's talk of turmoil, struggle with art, a search for purpose and pain over being labeled a "black playwright." It seems the The Octoroon was subject of his research on Dion Boucicault and this stresses him severely. This self-therapy is also the trigger that begins Boucicault's play. Into this stream-of-consciousness comes questions of white actors playing blackface and black actors in whiteface, all while BJJ applied his own whiteface for the play about to begin.
And suddenly Woods as BJJ steps into the role of George Peyton, new plantation owner of Terrebonne in the 1859 play, nephew of Judge Peyton, the benevolent previous owner. George is unlike stereotypical plantation owners. In his hastily applied whiteface, Woods was more meek and self-doubting than his position would suggest. His singular focus is a love for a young girl, the daughter of Judge Peyton. But unlike typical slave owners who focused on bedding the young slaves, George is smitten, in love, like a love-struck teenager.
In time BJJ also became the evil M’Closky. This quintessential bad guy who's crucial to the melodramatic style is another rich plantation owner. M'Closky wants to steal Terrebonne through any means necessary and he too wants the young Zoe, but not for love. He'll create treachery to get her. In this role, Woods changes little in appearance. The same whiteface reveals who the actor is, but he adds a hat and a wig and changes his demeanor to a stooped, negative, demanding owner who reeks of evil intent and creates hate in everyone. There are times when Woods must play these two characters in conflict with each other, sometimes simultaneously, even in a fabulously choreographed fight scene by Jeff Colangelo. Woods plays this epic struggle with masterful skill. And, yet, he sometimes has to step out of the play and into BJJ, explaining the structure of the play and dealing with more internal struggle. The epic battle within the play may well be a sign of the epic struggle within his mind.
Justin Duncan also appeared in the midst of that opening scene on the chaotic stage, mostly naked, basking in the light of his own ghost light, this time a candle. He's from a distant theater past. This character is, in fact, the Playwright, none other than Boucicault. Duncan is a white actor playing opposite Woods, two playwrights from different eras struggling with the creative process in parallel. Like Woods, he also played multiple characters. During that opening scene, he donned red face for his sudden shift into the character of Wahnotee, an "injun" who planted himself into the slave community at Terrebonne in the 1859 story. This character spoke no English and had to have an interpreter, one of the slave boys. The presence of a "redskin" provides an expansion of the racial theme, as Jacobs-Jenkins shows racism included other races besides the slaves. But Duncan, as Whanotee, expanded his own characterization to an extreme stereotype of Indian and donned a deerskin costume and chief's headdress. Whanotee plays a structural role in moving the plot towards its big climax which upends the evil character in the end. Just when you got used to Duncan as the Indian, complete with a stereotypical alcohol addiction, he transitions to LaFouche, an auctioneer from New Orleans who arrives to sell Terrebonne and the slaves. This time Duncan created a French-accented stern business type who, nonetheless, kept the red face while trading his Indian garb for southern style big city pant and shirt. Duncan's demeanor also changed. Though he created LaFouche as a typical white racist you can hate for what he's doing, you had the idea he was just doing his job. But his overly dramatic pronouncements extended the style and provided laughs to relieve audience pressure on the idea of selling slaves.
Dora Sunnyside is the white heiress of the plantation next door. She's tall, statuesque, blond in white satin gown who enters the estate barking orders at slaves like they belong to her. She's stereotypical of the true attitude of a southern white population, believing slaves were animals to be controlled. But she's not vicious. Nikki Cloer played the southern belle with strong accent and a penchant for general over-the-top dramatic responses to everything. Dora is interested in the new Terrebonne owner, George, and wants to apply her irresistible charms to snare him. But she's also rich, unencumbered by legal questions, and feels secure in her future. Cloer took this character to the extremes of every emotional display, whether sweeping through the room like a Grande Dame or swooning in reaction to rejection, and she made it look funny.
Zoe is the young Terrebonne girl, the damsel in distress, and the object of two white owners' affection. She's also the reason for the play titles. An Octoroon is a person of one-eighth black blood. She's the daughter of the late Judge Peyton. How does a person become an octoroon? Someone in the family has played musical beds with someone of African genetics. Interbedding was a common practice on the plantation, but intermarrying someone with even one-eighth black blood was illegal. Zoe carries the social stigma.
Morgana Wilborn played Zoe. Wilborn seemed to have a natural "innocence" that made her appear as a young ingénue. Her character, even in this overly dramatic story, was closer to realistic than other characters and this easily attached to Zoe. She looked normal compared to most others. Though Zoe's position at Terrebonne is exalted, there's a girl-next-door quality. Of course Zoe is conflicted over her love for George in light of her status as an octoroon. For Wilborn, this was like a badge of dishonor in Zoe, something to overcome. So when the idea of marriage arises, there's terror in being discovered. Wilborn played this heartache to the hilt and Zoe chooses extreme solutions to the problem. Even in the melodramatic world of the play, Zoe's story was realistic and showed the human impact to slavery and racism. This seemed to fill Wilborn with a realistic sense of importance to empower Zoe's human quality.
Two slave characters provided constant backstory to the history of Terrebonne and created a constant comedic relief. Despite its subject and theme, this play is a comedy and these actors played their comedic timing and melodramatic histrionics to perfection. Kristen White played Minnie, the young inside-house slave who keeps the house. Minnie is brash, unfiltered, on the trail of her own bedroom games, and ready to question everyone and everything. And White played this without pushing the humor. She let the lines breathe and the humor was natural. Bretteney Beverly played Dido, the older housekeeper. Dido has been around many years with the old owner and knows her place, as well as where the bodies are buried. Beverly shyly and quietly played "straight man" against Minnie's unfettered tongue and the result was a memorable comic duo. The only negative was that the duo sometimes stepped on their laugh lines so some exposition was missed, but this may change as they learn where audiences laugh the most. This one did a lot!
Camille Monae was Grace, who represents the field slaves outside view of those in the big house. Grace is jaded and cynical. For Jacobs-Jenkins she embodies the racism and discord that exists within the slave community. Her near-term pregnancy also provides a stereotypical model of plantation slaves always being pregnant. She voices the views of the majority of the slaves. Monae played Grace's pregnancy with a quieter form of comedic presence, but that served as a foil to Minnie and Dido, constantly putting her negative spin and realistic perspective on Minnie's Pollyanna views.
The other two male actors played multiple characters. Christopher Llewyn Ramirez played BJJ's Assistant in the opening stage scene, then switched to Pete in the plantation scenes, an elderly senior house slave, and Paul, a young slave boy. Ramirez, a young Hispanic actor put on blackface to create the quintessential Al Jolson character of Pete, who goes to extremes to please "the master" and show the stereotypical black actor. Ramirez actually expanded Pete's portrayal to nearly uncomfortable antics reminiscent of black actors in the early days of TV and movies, yet his own dramatic style was funny enough to show this without implied judgement. Ramirez also played Paul, that young black boy, beloved in the community, both white and black, who befriended Whanotee. This shows how people can overcome stereotypes to create true friendships. Paul's presence quickly ends after violence, but becomes a trigger of the climactic war between good and evil.
Christopher Lew played two roles, one of which is largely symbolic, perhaps a nod to 19th Century cultural reference. Br’er Rabbit is best known from the Uncle Remus stories older Americans grew up hearing. This iconic trickster foiled Br'er Fox's attempt to entrap rabbits with his Tar-Baby doll. This story came to represent slaves who outwitted their enslavers but during more enlightened recent history, it became fodder for discussion about racial stereotyping in American literature. In this story, Lew, with large rabbit ears, appeared when Br'er Rabbit needs to focus our attention on a scenery or prop. Lew's action was quiet and subtle, but his moments allowed the author to point look away for a moment, like a magician misdirecting the audience. It should be noted that our long characterization of Br'er Rabbit as a black cultural reference may be racist itself. Records show the story was common throughout native American culture long before the slaves or whites appeared.
Captain Ratts was the other character played by Lew. The river boat and cotton hauling captain arrives to enter the story at a crucial time. He's a possible savior for Minnie and Dido as they manipulate their own slave sale. He might save Zoe by outbidding M'Closky at the sale. His riverboat becomes part of the climactic chaos when public lynching is afoot and when the forces for good war against evil. Lew, dressed as a respectable southern gentleman, presented a more subtle, more realistic, characterization of Ratts, who nevertheless hides his own secrets. Lew could use this inner conflict to show subtle hints of his problems, which allowed a bit of depth to an important supporting character.
There's several ways to experience An Octoroon. Enjoy the great acting and production of an outlandish story and have a rollicking good time, especially at Stage West where meals and drinks are exceptional and the art gallery is always full. This show even had an African mask collection. Or open your mind and look for deeper meanings in Jacobs-Jenkins' and Boucicault's stories. There's material there to open many discussions on race relations and on how we still enable and embrace stereotypes. Or be more analytical and get into the question of whether theater is, or should be, the place for political discourse. Can theater change minds? Can authors make you feel something? This author doesn't tell you how to respond.
This regional premier of this exceptional piece of work is the final play of Stage West's season and, as usual, they have stepped out on a limb and found something unusual, challenging and exciting. There may be a few who find melodrama in An Octoroon foreign and hard to grasp, although, if you think about it, every reality TV show tries to be melodramatic. Some may be uncomfortable with the subject of race. We often get nervous when reminded of America's historical record and racist past, and then realize it's still with us. But for most Stage West audiences, this will be an exploration into a play that's different from most current-day entertainment forms and this production can thrill. Akin Babatunde's direction is masterful in maximizing the melodramatic genre of storytelling. He says, "Through the theatrical medium of melodrama juxtaposed against realism and absurdism what lessons can we reflect on today … that may allow us to evolve."
An Octoroon should allow all of us to evolve.