Dorfman, National Theatre, London – until 18 July 2018
‘In 1859, white Irish playwright Dion Boucicault writes a hit play about America. Today, a black American playwright attempts to do the same.’ Thus reads the abstract on the National Theatre’s website for An Octoroon (2014). This line, whoever wrote it, establishes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ interest in writing and taking ownership. There seems to be a discourse surrounding the play that makes it hard to write about: some have expressed their gratitude at not having to review it, others their wish to read reviews only from certain audience members.
Indeed, An Octoroon is a tricky play, at times problematic and slippery. It’s a multi-layered, provocative exploration of racial representation and in Ned Bennett’s production, now transferred from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, it is exhilarating and urgent. But is there an easy way of talking about it?
‘In clumpy folds, the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of that side of the body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, one pant leg, and one Patek Philippe watch were washed completely white’ (259-260). This is from Paul Beatty’s wickedly funny and wildly subversive 2015 novel The Sellout, a satire about a black Los Angelino who reintroduces racial segregation and takes on a voluntary slave in order to put the town of Dickens back on the map.
It’s hard not to see the publicity image for this production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and not think of that part, one vivid bit of imagery of many, from Beatty’s novel. But as well as both making such brutal points about racism in America it also makes you think about how such things are discussed.
Rereading bits of The Sellout as preparation for this review (these things aren’t just thrown together, surprisingly!) I came across another line: ‘ “Problematic,” someone muttered, invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterise anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable… and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me’ (98). ‘Problematic’ is too often an easy get-out word to avoid the heart of something.
An Octoroon is problematic but this only strengthens it, provoking us to continuously question its characters’ representations. But it’s worth probing what is problematic and why that matters. There is a definite uneasiness about seeing minstrelsy, something enhanced by Bennett’s decision to use thick greasepaint or shoe polish to create block colours (black, red and white).
This is much more startling when comparing it to production photos from some American productions. And the blackface would be troubling enough if it was simply there as part of a post-modern critique of racial representation but it is compounded with melodrama and stage spectacles such as fire, straight out of Boucicault’s theatre, so An Octoroon can’t simply be written off as as an easy criticism of the original when at times it feels like a celebration of Boucicault’s theatre as much as a blistering play in its own right. There’s also the interest in stereotypes, from the character of old Pete (an echo of the slave Hominy in Beatty’s work) and the relentless modern stereotypes in the dialogue of Minnie and Dido. But Beatty and Jacobs-Jenkins share an irreverence that is refreshing and shows that serious ideas can be explored as effectively – perhaps more so – through subversion and humour.
An Octoroon starts with a black playwright, BJJ, giving the audience some spiel about his therapist’s advice to help his low level depression being to adapt his favourite play, Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon(1859), for a modern audience. Within that frame, we see this restaging of the play preceded by Dion Boucicault himself preparing to play the Native American character. Jacobs-Jenkins borrows much from Boucicault: ‘There’s a gulf between us, as wide as your love’, ‘O, none for me; I never eat’. But Jacobs-Jenkins and Bennett play this up, mocking how Boucicault lays the exposition on thick, and having Dora scoff some pancakes after saying she never eats.
Bennett orchestrates these different levels masterfully. Sometimes long pauses can snap us out of the action to remind us of what’s at stake, at other times layer upon layer is added to create surreal moments, such as the semi-present nightmarish rabbit, or Dora playing one scene on roller skates. From the Dorfman’s strip house lights to overtly theatrical spots, Elliot Griggs’ lighting excellently contributes to the play’s many layers. At times, I wondered if we were still in ‘the world of the play’ or if the performance had stopped, whereas at others we were fully submerged in the world of melodrama – including black capes and twiddly moustaches! Likewise, Theo Vidgen’s music and George Dennis’ sound stresses the form: from a live cellist, to hearing the rousing pre-recorded strings that nods to melodrama being the foundations of Hollywood. Not only is the production’s spectacle and bravura on another level but the performances are as well, actors seamlessly doubling up and in tune with the overall style. Ken Nwosu as BJJ/ hero George/ villain M’Closky deserves any awards he’s nominated for. Kevin Trainor is hilarious as Boucicault, as is Celeste Dodwell as the red-haired southern belle who wants George to fall in love with her. Alistair Toovey lends an acrobatic agility to both old Pete and young Paul, and Iola Evans performs without artifice as Zoe.
In all of the hot air there’s been lately about the 25 greatest plays since Angels in America, I cannot argue against the decision to include An Octoroon high on the list.
An Octoroon plays at the National Theatre until 18th July.
Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor in An Octoroon. Credit: Helen Murray.