An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre
The audience at the Orange Tree Theatre is pretty damn white (full disclosure, so is this reviewer). Half of the fun – and there is a hell of a lot of fun – in watching Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon is witnessing people squirm with discomfort, unsure if to laugh, when to laugh or if they are even allowed to laugh.
It’s confrontational from the off. Lights undimmed, out walks a man in nothing but a pair of boxers – this is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the playwright. At the suggestion of his therapist, he has decided to put on a production of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, an antebellum-era melodrama set on a plantation in Louisiana. Yet he just can’t get white actors to play slave owners, so he takes the role himself. From here witness BJJ (a fearless Ken Nwosu, leading a sparkling ensemble) smear on white-face, as Snoop Dogg’s Step Yo Game Up blares from the speakers. This is just the first in a parade of challenging roments – An Octoroon uses the boundaries of political correctness as its starting mark and then gleefully sprints towards the horizon.
Jacobs-Jenkins is like one of those magicians who shows you how the trick works and still leaves you agog with wonder. Deconstruction barely covers what he is doing here. He serves up piping hot stereotypes and forces you to grapple with them through layers of offensive face paint. He highlights the very different kind of characters black and white actors get to play and turns them on their head. He doesn’t only wade into the history of slavery in the US, but its representations in popular culture and what constitutes an “acceptable” telling of this story. All the while producing a truly riotous adaptation of Boucicault’s original narrative.
Crucially, the playwright is also sending a giant love letter to the theatre – and in director Ned Bennett he seems to have found the perfect partner. The Orange Tree isn’t a big room. Yet this intimacy makes Bennett’s Pandora’s box all the more thrilling; he allows An Octoroon’s mania to spill out into every part of the space, from actors finding unlikely opportunities for acrobatics to quite literally tearing up the floorboards.
Yet none of this is what lingers. No, what really sticks are the flashes of violence. It’s the kind of play that causes laughter to catch in the throat, the knife of history blinking out of the darkness to puncture the parody, reminding those in attendance of the blood that lay at the centre of the narrative.
An Octoroon is at the Orange Tree Theatre from 18th May until 1st July 2017, for further information or to book visit here.