The director on the area premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon, an important work about race, opening at Stage West.
by Janice L. Franklin | published in TheaterJones | Friday, August 31, 2018
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Fort Worth — His is not a very familiar name, Dion Boucicault. It should be, especially among theatre people, because he is responsible for the idea of a matinee, fireproofing in the theatre, and he was instrumental in establishing the author copyright in the United States (1856).
Irish dramatist Boucicault (born Boursiquot and later changed) was the first dramatist to treat the subject of African-American slavery seriously in his play The Octoroon; or Life in Louisiana, which was an adaptation of the novel The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reid in 1856.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is not a household name either. Not yet, and despite that he received a MacArthur Genuis Grant in 2016. He is a young playwright who has been noticed and recognized through awards, most notably the 2014 Obie for Best American Play for An Octoroon, a reimagining of Boucicault’s play. An Octoroon frames Bouciault’s story in the present and the past, simultaneously. In May, when the New York Times released its list of the 25 best plays in the 25 years since Angels in America debuted, it named An Octoroon at number two, after Suzan Lori-Parks’ Topdog/Underdog.
Stage West presents the regional premiere of An Octoroon to close out their 2017-2018 season. Next season, they’ll present another Jacobs-Jenkins work, Everybody, an adaptation of another seminal work in the canon, Everyman. Locally, Jacobs-Jenkins’ work has been seen at Dallas Theater Center with the 2016 production of Gloria. That play, and his earlier work Appropriate, were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
To understand the significance of the play opening this weekend at Stage West, it is helpful, almost necessary, to look at both: Boucicault’s original and that of Jacobs-Jenkins.
The Octoroon is an anti-slavery story in which a white landowner’s lust and greed for an octoroon—a person who is one-eighth black by descent—becomes so strong that he uses deceit to wrench a plantation away from its owner, thrusting the freed octoroon back into slavery simply so he could have her. As the title suggests, this play touches third rails of American history: colorism and miscegenation.
The version of the play Americans saw in 1859 had a tragic ending for its heroine. And that was just fine with American audiences. Given that the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, there was little if any chance that an anti-slavery play with miscegenation would be warmly received in 1860 America unless that negress died, no matter how beautiful. Through his play, Boucicault had knowingly jumped into the middle of the ugly American debate (which became the Civil War) about slavery and the abolitionist movement. Conversely, London audiences in 1861 disliked that ending so much that the playwright felt forced to rewrite and present a new ending with a happier result in which she lives as does the union with her beloved. (There were actually several endings written for Boucicault’s play, each tailored to the country and its audience.)
Jacobs-Jenkins was interested in how the conversation within a play is affected by the writer. His fascination with Boucicault was the fact that this Irish guy wrote black slave characters and a story of slavery without making it coonery or buffoonery. How does that white Irish perspective affect the story? The characters? Jacobs-Jenkins as a young man is quite fascinated by the rules about who can write what and for whom. And so, he dug in with Boucicault’s story about an octoroon who becomes imperiled.
For Jacobs-Jenkins the question as he reworked the piece became how and where does one release the blackness of the story? How does one tell the story of blackness during a time when it was relegated to the interior, locked inside the body with little if any possibility of safe escape?
Jacobs-Jenkins jumps off the cliff and into the cauldron of issues including but not limited to race, privilege, slavery, appropriation, colorism and all things interracial. Using language and the visual, the viewer is jolted into paying as much attention to the unsaid as to the spoken. An Octoroon is neither gentle nor nuanced.
TheatreJones sat down with the director, Akin Babatundé, to talk about the production. He started rehearsals for An Octoroon almost immediately after returning from his critically acclaimed Off-Broadway performance as Blind Lemon Jefferson in the new musical Lonesome Blues, which debuted at the York Theatre Company in May of this year.
Stage West’s production features Bretteney Beverly, Nikki Cloer, Justin Duncan, Christopher Lew, Camille Monae, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Morgana Wilborn, and Kristen White. Set design is by Bob Lavallee, with lighting design by Bryan Stevenson, costume design by Aaron Patrick DeClerk, sound design by John M. Flores, fight choreography by Jeffrey Colangelo, and props/set decor by Lynn Lovett.
TheaterJones: Before I pepper you with specific questions, what would you like readers to know about this production?
Akin Babatundé: One of the things I’m appreciative of is that Stage West is doing cutting edge works. [Two seasons ago], I did a work called BootyCandy by Robert O’Hara that I thought would be controversial, and I was a little apprehensive in terms of how it would be received. But the Stage West audience loved it. I have that same feeling this time. There is apprehension over the delicate subject matter and how in-your-face it is.
I’m really appreciative that I get an opportunity to again explore the world of absurdity which I love. I love the masters like Bertolt Brecht and [Jerzy] Grotowski who use expressionism that springs from a real basis. I do not think we do enough of that kind of work. I’m glad to tell this story which moves from the abstract to the melodramatic, the epic in a sense then to realism.
This Stage West production is happening during a time when there is a lot of conversation in the theatre community about casting and race and ethnicity. The playwright specifies the ethnicities for each character, therefore each actor. At the center of the play and both of the playwrights’ visions, is colorism.
Colorism [is] racial preference in terms of lighter skin color. It is important to note that colorism is an internal as well as an external affliction. As much damage is exacted upon those of lighter skin by in-group racial members as by those outside the racial group. Colorism is responsible for much of the ish in the play.
The term “octoroon” was part of a hierarchal visual arrangement of black slaves by skin color. At that time, the census [which still defines race in America] recognized four categories of blackness: black, mulatto [product of one white parent and one black parent], quadroon [one quarter black] and octoroon [one-eighth black]. At one-eighth black, octoroons were practically white. Indeed, octoroons could “pass” for white and there were those who did. (Some of such skin tone are making that choice today.) For white women of that period, the presence of an octoroon was constant irrefutable proof of their husbands’ dalliances.
The author has prescribed the ethnicity of characters and therefore, casting. Face paint is used in this play. Is that important to the story?
Yes; very. It must be there.
This also feeds into the language of the play, which is where Jacobs-Jenkins has made jarring changes. What are your thoughts about the changes he made in the language of the original play? Starting with the title, he changed articles moving from “the” to “an” octoroon.
Language for me is the creative process. Dion Boucicault had a creative process which was based upon showing the atrocities of slavery at that time. He follows the same path as any creative person who is touched by the ghost light. That is a powerful image that has given me a launching pad and a place of departure. The traditional ghost light in the theatre is there for the spirits who have performed there and still have something to say, or who support those of us who are performing now in a unique way. What is the ghost light saying today with these two creative geniuses coming together? What is it illuminating that we need to pay attention to? I try to do that in an unobtrusive way.
African-Americans and other minorities today are adept at code-switching as we move back and forth between spaces shaped by the vernacular language in each space. In this play however, the playwright switches between the contemporary and the time of slavery—which is a big leap.
How have you helped the actors find their space with the language of the play given that the playwright utilizes cross-generational code switching? I am thinking of the back-and-forth between Minnie and the other worker.
The playwright made a statement: “I don’t know what a slave sounded like and neither do you.” I love that. The challenge for me is that we have seen plays about slavery. What is this play saying differently? What is the message that needs to be echoed? I had to investigate what is slavery today? One of the things I told the actors was you (your characters) are both workers in the big house. So, let’s contemporize it. What is a big house today? Walmart. How many times have we gone into Walmart and observed somebody working their butts off, stocking shelves, while the other worker close to that person is doing just enough to get by. This hard-working employee thinks that if she works her hardest and does her best, life will get better for her. But sometimes it never does.
In an effort to drill down into this even more, Akin offers another, deeply personal contemporary reference point.
Contemporary slavery, from my own background, is remembering my grandmother. As a child at that time, I didn’t know she was a domestic. I just knew she worked so diligently for Ms. Halpern. I recall her mentioning “Ms. Halpern this and Ms. Halpern that. Ms. Halpern gave me this or that.” Her good friend began working for Ms. Halpern too. But over time, that good friend undermined my grandmother with Ms. Halpern. She created a tension that resulted in my grandmother losing her job. That hurt my grandmother and I never forgot that. Things changed. She left the church. Even as a child I could tell my grandmother had worked so hard and done her best, thinking her life would get better. Sometimes, it never does.
The language informed me to stay connected to the greater message. For actors who are not African-American, go back and think about how your culture is perceived. Find the targeted one in you.
In Jacobs-Jenkins’ play there are a lot of layers to be uncovered. When the characters are talking with very offensive language, you have to figure out whether there was a reason.
Jacobs-Jenkins refers back to African-American folktales through the introduction of Br’er Rabbit, who usually symbolized a character who was something of a trickster, often outsmarting the “massa.”
What are your thoughts about the playwright’s reference to African-American folktales? Through the character Br’er Rabbit.
There’s a movie called The Spook Who Sat by the Door. [1973 crime drama based on the novel by Sam Greenlee]. The character worked in a bureaucracy. He just sat by the door, unassuming. Nobody ever paid attention to him. He observed, charting a course of awareness and eventually he became victorious as a CEO. So, for me, Br’er Rabbit is our conscience throughout the play, peeking out, asking “did you hear that? Better pay attention.”
Music has a presence in the story. What role did music serve for you during this process?
I used music to prepare for the work, and dance as well. Early in the morning I would hear something on Pandora and think “that’s Zoe [the octoroon] talking.” There is an expressionist element to the play that reminds me of [expressionist choreographer] Pina Bausch which is inspiring. Music played a big part in informing me.
As we close, is there anything else you would like to say?
In a work like this, you have to rely on a team. My job was to bring the vision, the concept. Ptosha Storey, who is working with me as Assistant Director, is brilliantly adept at going back to the details and knowing why the story is told, once the concept is up and visual.
It is wonderfully essential to have Bob Lavallee hearing the vision and then articulating it in a unique way through the set, challenging me to go further through the questions he asks. The time I have spent with John Flores, who designs the sound and music, just jamming together, sets the basis for the lights. That collaborative process is really needed here.
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photo: Robert Hart, TheaterJones