Race relations down on the plantation

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday July 11, 2017
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It's appropriate that the first known use of the term "mash-up" derives from an 1859 play titled "The Octoroon," since Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' contemporary take on that slave-era melodrama is most certainly a mash-up. Not only do theatrical worlds collide �" Carol Burnett's antebellum sketches seem one inspiration, but so do Bertolt Brecht's distancing didactics �" but the mash-ups carry into skin colors. There is black face, white face, and even red face as actors swap out racial identities in a story embedded in racial identities of both today and 158 years ago.

In his 2014 play now at Berkeley Rep, Jacobs-Jenkins deconstructs and then reconstructs Dion Boucicault's musty melodrama that was nearly as popular as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in its day. The Dublin-born Boucicault was hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic as an actor, playwright, and producer, and among his steady output of melodramas, "The Octoroon" was the only one to deal with slavery in the American south. On this topic, he was definitely a progressive, which in that era meant he thought slaves should be treated more like family than like chattel, with the villain of the piece intent on destroying a plantation idyll that a financially struggling family has built.

Jacob-Jenkins has maintained the basic plot of "The Octoroon," subtly changing the title to "An Octoroon" and not so subtly heightening the melodrama into mockery, and then adding a kind of quasi-contemporary vernacular for several slaves who become something of a Greek chorus, and who carp about their situations but have trouble conceiving of a world beyond the boundaries of their plantation. Jasmine Bracey, Afi Bijou, and Afua Busia expertly play off each other in a series of recurring scenes.

But the centerpiece role belongs to Lance Gardner. Actually, it's centerpiece roles, for Gardner plays not only a stand-in for playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins who introduces us to the proceedings, but also both the kindly master of the financially failing plantation and the scoundrel who is trying to take control by any means necessary. Identified as BJJ, Gardner arrives on stage stripped down to his underwear, and as he applies whiteface, he shares with us his dilemma. "I'm a black playwright," he says, "but I don't know what that means."

Jacobs-Jenkins uses his variation on "Octoroon" to share his puzzlement, and provoke some of the same in the audience, as the actor moves from a makeup table on a bare stage to the world of Louisiana of 1859. Now in whiteface, Gardner is playing George Peyton, an erudite young bachelor recently returned from studies in Paris to help save the family plantation. Whatever disconcertion arises from his painted face soon gives way to acceptance of Gardner as this character, certainly not as Boucicault intended but in a kind of reverse minstrelry in which he creates a comically exaggerated, high-minded dandy. It's a wonderful performance that is magnified by the fact that Gardner also plays the mustached villain M'Closky with both a leer and a wink �" and the actor is even called upon to play both characters simultaneously in a scene that leads to a bout of fisticuffs.

The two women in Peyton's life, whose faces are not painted beyond traditional stage makeup, alternately provide the low comedy and moments of genuine pathos. Jennifer Regan is a hoot and a holler as Dora, a wealthy neighbor and over-the-hill ingenue with a clueless sense of allure suggesting Carol Burnett in dimwitted damsel mode as she sets her sights on George. But George's true love is the pure-of-heart Zoe, one-eighth black �" an octoroon �" and forbidden fruit for a white man's attentions. Sydney Morton plays her with such sincerity that the performance works on an earnest level that can become comic in its contrast to the outsized performances around her.

A curious subplot in Boucicault's original play, and preserved here in buffoonish fashion, is the friendship between a ditzy slave boy and a hulking, monosyllabic Native American, played in blackface and red face, respectively, by Amir Talai and Ray Porter. When M'Closky accuses Whanotee of thievery and drunkenness, the angelic Zoe flutters to the Indian's defense: "Whanotee is a gentle, honest creature, and he remains here because he loves that boy with the tenderness of a woman," a line that Jacobs-Jenkins has preserved from the original play.

Talai sharply shuttles between the young slave and Old Pete, an overseer of the plantation's slaves who is a slave himself but spouts racist tirades at his charges to impress the white folks. In addition to his work in red greasepaint, Porter makes a swaggering appearance as the 19th-century author of the original "Octoroon," spewing obscenities over his forgotten status in theatrical history. "Matinees," he barks at the audience. "That's right, bitches, I invented matinees."

Jacobs-Jenkins pulls and pushes at the audience, and borrows and invents for this play that raises issues for which some answers are provided mostly obliquely, and in one case with an unsettling sledgehammer. But director Eric Ting inventively handles the juggling act that the playwright has provided. Not all of the balls remain airborne throughout the production, but this is not a creation with much precedence. For at least seven-eighths of its time on stage, "An Octoroon" remains airborne.


"An Octoroon" will run through July 29 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $45-$97. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.