Sunday, March 08, 2015

An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon is one of those plays that is so excellent, challenging, insightful and funny that it leaves me with the desire to see it again immediately, several times even, and also to read it a couple of times for good measure. It's one of the strongest and most satisfying shows I've seen in a while. It serves as a reminder of the fact that as a nation, we tend not to talk meaningfully, effectively, or straightforwardly about race, and that our inability to do so makes our ugly racial past bleed into our present. It does all this without crushing the possibility of frank talk or real, productive change. And it's really fucking funny.

While not a straightforward history lesson, An Octoroon does a seamless job of demonstrating to its audiences some of the ways our distant past and immediate present remain entwined. The show simultaneously reconstructs, comments upon, and updates aspects of Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, which was, in the states, second only in popularity to the big commercial blockbuster of the time, the melodramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Clearly, as it remains now, race was on a lot of American peoples' minds during the leadup to the Civil War. Go figure.

Jacobs-Jenkins' Talmudic reworking of the Boucicault piece is at once respectful to and critical of the original, and through it, An Octoroon compares past performance styles, social mores, views on race (and class and gender), and collective national consciousness with their contemporary equivalents. Lots has changed; lots hasn't. The production is unsettling, and even disorienting at times--especially since Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't let his audience get too caught up in the comedic aspects of the show before abruptly reminding us about what we're laughing at in the first place. He also refuses to tie up all the loose ends he and Boucicault have introduced in the process. There are just so many, after all--and as a collective, contemporary Americans are still trying to figure out, a century and a half after slavery ended, who is allowed to approach them, and in what ways, let alone how we are supposed to work them out once we do.

I am humbled by and grateful for An Octoroon. I hope you run right out and see it if you can. I hope it continues to be staged, seen, and discussed. And for the love of this stained, strained country, I hope like hell it's not the only contemporary American theatrical entertainment to do so.

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