An Octoroon: Theatre’s past crimes rewritten as a magnificent masterpiece

Centuries of obscene caricature, is delivered as both confrontational and comedic

Patrick Martins as M’Closky in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Patrick Martins as M’Closky in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

AN OCTOROON

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★★★

What does your taste in theatre say about you? Early in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s magnificent play, we see a version of the playwright who, answering a therapist’s questions, reveals that he most admires the 19th century impresario Dion Boucicault. Jacobs-Jenkins is struggling with what it means to be a black artist, so the fact that he enjoys Boucicault, who wrote an ambivalent slave-era melodrama titled The Octoroon, could be seen as a bleak comment on artistic inspiration.

Jacobs-Jenkins (played by an impressively suave Patrick Martins) has decided to write a new version of The Octoroon as a therapeutic exercise. Sitting at an actor’s dressing table, he lists off the demands of representativeness, the pressure to write black characters warped by trauma and addiction. He is literally depressed by an artform, the history of which gets summed up by the arrival of a bad-tempered version of Boucicault (Rory Nolan). “You really save on make-up”, he says, observing how blackface has disappeared since the Victorian era.

An ingenious transformation, dressing him in whiteface make-up, allows Martins not simply one nimble performance in Boucicault’s story but two. He plays both George, a blindingly blonde and easily upset heir who has arrived to a cotton plantation up for sale, as well as his bidding rival M’Closky, a tongue-slithering, moustachioed villain with a reputation for whipping slaves. Whiteness, Jacobs-Jenkins knows, also has its share of cringe representations, which are fair game here, such as Maeve O’Mahony’s sublime performance as an airheaded southern belle.

If race representation is a minefield, the play pulls us into the blast zone and triggers its explosions

Most incendiary are the approaches to the play’s black characters, whose fates will be determined at an auction. Within Jolly Abrahamson’s extraordinary performance, dressed in blackface as different male slaves, are centuries’ worth of obscene caricature, delivered here as both confrontational and comedic.

Boucicault’s complex plot is difficult to wrestle, but director Anthony Simpson-Pike’s excellent production for the Abbey Theatre has help. The old-school slapstick receives its necessary thrust from Annie Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s movement direction, while unsettling spectres from history, concealed behind the dreamlike towers of cotton in Sabine Dargent’s plantation set, give the old melodrama something serious to say.

When Zoe (Umi Myers), a young woman living on the plantation, reveals her secret of being one-eighth black (an “octoroon”), she is consumed by shame. “My race has one virtue. It knows how to suffer,” she says. Depressingly, this seems like a cultural legacy in An Octoroon, one that corners black people into a woeful history of slavery, sadly disrupting their flow of inspiration.

Theatre is culpable in this, and Jacobs-Jenkins rewrites its past crimes into a masterpiece. If race representation is a minefield, the play pulls us into the blast zone and triggers its explosions. The consoling words of one friend to another (Mara Allen and Leah Walker, both superb) in a Louisiana swamp at the play’s conclusion sounds like another therapist: “You can get too worked up over the small stuff. You can’t bring your work home with you”. If only it were that easy.

Until May 14th

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