An Octoroon

I’ve been to see a few plays at the Orange Tree Theatre in my time, normally works by the likes of Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan. Recently, the play The Octoroon, written by American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins after a work by nineteenth century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, opened to excited acclaim. Everyone on Twitter kept saying how great it was, and then it got extended for another week, so I felt I HAD to go.

Boucicault – the sort of playwright who would normally fit right in at the Orange Tree – wrote An Octoroon in 1859. Set on a US plantation, it’s the story of the good-hearted George Peyton who must defend his plantation against the wicked M’Closky, set against his love for his uncle’s child Zoe, the ‘octoroon’ of the title (the word refers to a person with one eighth black ancestry).

Fond as I am of century-old drama and theatrical revivals, I must admit that this particular play is hardly worth performing in its original form – the attitudes are so removed from our own. What Jacobs-Jenkins has done, however, is to use An Octoroon as a starting point to craft his own postmodern, unpredictable play, incorporating scenes from the original with dialogue changes, witty asides and lengthy explanatory interludes.

It begins with the playwright himself (played here by Ken Nwosu in a standout performance, not least because he also plays the hero and the villain) addressing the audience directly, explaining why he has chosen to adapt this particular play, before “whiting up” to play the lead. We also meet Dion Boucicault himself (Kevin Trainor), who reddens his skin to play a Native American character. Another actor is in blackface makeup, which is very uncomfortable for the audience to watch – I expect that is the point. For all the progressiveness of Boucicault’s play, which condemned slavery, he still made use of harmful racial stereotypes. Yet the makeup serves to highlight absurdity – Trainor’s red makeup is later passed off as sunburn when he is called upon to play another character later on.

The cast are wonderful, with not a weak link among them. Among those previously mentioned I particularly loved Celeste Dodwell, whose Southern belle was hilariously over the top. Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole are superb as two of the slaves on the Peyton plantation, and Iola Evans is excellent as Zoe.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ play manages to be incredibly funny and affectionate towards Boucicault while also challenging our ideas and preconceptions about race and racial stereotypes. It also has the power to shock – one particular scene in the second half left me, and the rest of the audience, silent. It’s also rather scary at times – I suspect I’ll be having nightmares about that rabbit. (Yes, there is a reason for the rabbit.).

I absolutely loved this play and I’m so glad I made the effort to see it. I’m also impressed with the Orange Tree Theatre for putting it on – it’s not at all the sort of thing I would expect to see there. It has the perfect mix of Victorian melodrama and postmodern absurdity, and is one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

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