Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon
Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.
The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.
Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.
Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.
Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.
Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.
What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.
Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.
Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.
Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.