An Octoroon (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: June 4, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Octoroon is an 1859 melodrama by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, set on a Louisiana plantation. Here we have An Octoroon, a modern re-working by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, first seen in New York. The rarely used word in both titles means one-eighth black.

It is doubtful if Jacobs-Jenkins would claim that either the original or his own version is a great piece of literature, but what he has created is an extraordinary work of theatre and Ned Bennett’s ferocious production quite literally tears into the foundations of the Orange Tree. Jacobs-Jenkins himself (played by Ken Nwosu) appears in his underwear for a prelude, introducing  a playwright (Kevin Trainor) who is developing a production based on Boucicault. Nwosu (a black actor) then paints his face white to alternate as two slave masters and Trainor (a white actor) paints his face red to play a native American. Another white actor, Alistair Toovey, blacks up to play a crippled old slave. Colour blind casting has become a norm in modern theatre, but this is colour altered casting.

While increasing the tone of melodrama, the greasepaint has a startling effect, aimed at unsettling a modern audience and, in unexpected ways, using ironic humour to challenge us into confronting lingering prejudices surrounding the abominations of slavery, racism and sexism. Bennett augments the tension with alarming stage effects, using this small in-the-round theatre as probably never before. A second act scene change (a stage change to be precise) halts the play as repeated variations in pace unsettle us further and encourage us to expect the unexpected.

In contrast to the parade of grotesques formed by the men, the women are all played conventionally. Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare are touching and sometimes funny as the slaves whose spirit survives their degradation, Celeste Dodwell is prissy as the wealthy young lady of the plantation and Iola Evans is sweetly romantic as the octoroon herself, white enough to fall for the heir to the plantation, but black enough to be denied her freedom. The company is completed by a cellist (James Douglas) and Clare appears at intervals as Br’er Rabbit to add a further dash of absurdism. Perhaps the play occasionally loses its way and feels too self-indulgent for its own good, but, for originality and dramatic effect, it scores top marks.

Performance date: 3 June 2017

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