by Lynn on August 15, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
Designed by Gillian Gallow
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Original music and sound by Ryan deSouza
Cast: Lisa Berry
Ryan Cunningham
Starr Domingue
Diana Donnelly
Patrick McManus
Kiera Sangster
Vanessa Sears
André Sills
Samantha Walkes

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins looks at racism and turns it on its head in this terrific production.

The Story. The Octoroon, on which this version is based, was written by Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault and opened in New York in 1869 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It took place on a plantation that was in jeopardy and the slaves were to be sold. That play dealt with issues of racism.

Fast forward to 2014 when African-American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took Boucicault’s play, kept the story but then turned the themes of racism on its ear. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ calls his play An Octoroon. It opened to great acclaim Off-Broadway.

An octoroon is a person who is 1/8 black. At the time of the play—1869 it was illegal for an octoroon to marry a white person. In the play, Zoe is a house slave. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the recently deceased white owner of the plantation and one of his slaves. George is the nephew of the deceased owner. He has come home to try and sort out the details of the estate and falls in love with Zoe. She knows she can’t marry him because of that rule.

The Production. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins turns the whole issue of racism on its ear in a cheeky way. He’s wonderfully cheeky here. He presents this as a play within a play with eye-popping surprises along the way.

At the top of the production we are introduced to a character named BJJ, an African-American playwright—note the initials of our African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ is played with impish smiling style and grace by André Sills. He is initially dressed only in black bikini briefs. He has a lot to smile about.

BJJ laments that he doesn’t have enough actors of colour to play the characters of colour in his play, so he solves this by having white actors apply blackface in one instance, and red face in another to play a Native American.

He also says that many white actors would balk at playing a white villain who has to say what they say, so a black actor in white face says the damning dialogue. Black actors whiten their faces to play white characters and the actresses, both black and white, don’t add any make-up at all. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity offender…everybody is skewered.

The production is terrific. It’s directed with gleaming intellect and sensitivity by Peter Hinton. He brings out the wit, irony and sobering truth of the piece. His attention to detail is exquisite. There’s a lot to keep track of and Hinton doesn’t let anything drop. And he gets wonderful performances from his stellar cast.

André Sills plays BJJ, the African-American playwright; George, the white nephew of the late plantation owner, and M’Closky, a villain who is white. Sometimes Sills plays both George and M’Closky at the same time—the two characters even have a fight on stage at the same time. Masterful.

Patrick McManus plays Dion Boucicault with verve and exuberance, Wahnotee (in red face makeup to suggest the character is a Native American), and Lafouche an irritated riverboat captain. McManus plays all of them with compelling conviction. Lisa Berry as Dido and Kiera Sangster as Minnie, two slaves, have sass and attitude for days. Diana Donnelly plays Dora, a rich white woman who has designs on George. Much of her dialogue would be offensive today, with her belittling of the slaves and her racist attitude. Donnelly lets loose with the invective without holding back. It’s a chilling performance.

Gillian Gallow has designed the production with simplicity, but her backdrop deserves special mention-it looks like a piece of art in wood cuts. Just stunning.

Comment. I love how Branden Jacobs-Jenkins up ends our presumptions, assumptions, and assertions about racism. Considering the headlines of the last while it’s a subject, alas, that won’t go away.

As in 1869, An Octoroon is presented as a melodrama; emotions are high; lots of declarative dialogue. It almost seems a send-up but it’s not because the issues are so serious. The offensive terminology of the day is used and it makes for wonderfully bracing, sometimes appropriately uncomfortable viewing, but well worth it.

In one scene BJJ addresses the audience saying that a character who committed a murder is caught doing the deed in a photograph. BJJ says this is such a cliché and not to be taken seriously but then shows us something that he says will make us feel something.

It’s another photograph—I won’t tell you of what, but we look at it in silence and suck air. If something can startle an audience it’s not a cliché. I love that mixing of style in performance and the truth of the issues. Loved the production. See it.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Began: July 16, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Cast: 9; 3 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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