FringeReview UK 2017
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon premiered in New York in 2014 to accolades. It’s revived at the Orange Tree. It’s a thrilling occasionally uneven ride, directed by Ned Bennett with a set or rather deconstruction of the stage by Georgia Lowe with Elliot Griggs providing many black-outs and sudden spotlightings. Cellist James Douglas plays at sudden moments, Theo Vidgen’s score subjected to George Dennis sound wrap sometimes explosive rap.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon premiered in New York in 2014 to accolades. It’s revived at the Orange Tree. It’s a largely inspired framing of an 1859 play by Dion Boucicault. Boucicault’s not that obscure: his 1841 teenage hit London Assurance played again at the National in 2010 with Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Michelle Terry, and Richard Briers. And the original The Octoroon was curated by Mark Ravenhill on Radio in 2013. Jacobs-Jenkins frames An Octoroon with his own invention, peppering the melodrama of the original with sudden sleights.
It’s a thrilling occasionally uneven ride, directed by Ned Bennett with a set or rather deconstruction of the stage by Georgia Lowe with Elliot Griggs providing many black-outs and sudden spotlightings. At one point the bare boards of the theatre are taken up and two arranged lengthwise whilst the cellarage is filled with water. There’s even flames or two betokening a ship on fire. And about six pints of stage blood dripping into it: a lot of mess for a couple of scenes. Cellist James Douglas plays at sudden moments, Theo Vidgen’s score subjected to George Dennis sound wrap sometimes explosive rap.
It’s a fantastical romp too: gleeful deconstructions of what it means to be a dramatist of colour, then pulls this away as sheerly as Boucicault’s own identity is played on.
Ken Nwosu comes on as BJJ a playwright who plays with our expectations of what a white therapist has told him about in effect reclaiming a piece of theatre. There’s jokes ‘most of my best friends are white’, but every time he suggests a theme he’s immediately boxed into African village tales or some other reductive trope by the therapist he doesn’t have as he’s skint. This has consequences, since at sudden spot-lit black-outs we’re treated to a massive Br’er Rabbit (Cassie Clare) who scuts in on two legs. It’s got nothing to do with the narrative but suggests authorial unease. Kevin Trainor’s the innovative playwright Boucicault, now challenging us to remember him (he set up copyright for example), also redding-up as a native American and blacked as Lafouche the old slave. As Boucucualt he lacks the 21st century doubt BJJ floats with, and the two square up.
We’re then launched into a compressed version of The Octoroon, the definite article subverted here as the play’s peppered with fresher blue language. George, nephew of his late uncle’s estate (played by Nwosu) finds this mortgaged and his heart belonging to Iola Evans’ appealing Zoe: one-eighth black, his cousin. A loophole in her enfranchisement at birth means evil McClosky can buy and have her as well as the estate.
Nwosu plays him too, engendering much switch-back humour and wig-acting, more than a tour-de-farce since Nwosu’s continually switching registers and subverting even these. It’s even funnier than the kind of thing seen in for instance The Thirty-Nine Steps and Nwosu has to leap floorboards too.
Celeste Dowell’s comically over-heated belle Dora wants George and can rescue him, but honesty triumphs and there’s a letter of credit owed to the estate. McClosky murders Alistair Toovey’s Pete to steal the mailbag and foil this. But George’s other passion, a camera, stands nearby, and records everything. Boucicault’s pioneering use of the latest technology shows nothing dates like being up-to-date; but he deserves more credit.
There’s a spectacular set of scenes with slaves sold emerging from the floorboards, a fight, an exploding ship and Zoe’s resolve not to fall into McClosky’s hands without knowing the photograph’s come to light. Boucicault fashioned a different ending for the contemporary British audience.
Jacobs-Jenkins will have none of it. Having concentrated on the men in the prologue, the epilogue draws out a fascinating leg-dangling conversation over the blood-drenched water between Emanuella Cole’s conscience-stricken Dido (Zoe has begged something from her), and Vivian Oparah’s far more truculent Minnie. ‘These people ain’t our problem anymore’ though Dido rolls out elements of the plot unfolding around them, even Minnie comically predicts: ‘I would be so pissed if something were to happen that somehow rendered the last twelve hours moot.’ In a beat, language shifts one hundred and sixty years back to its 2014 opening. The last thought’s of ‘that rabbit’.
Does the finale work? There’s a hiatus in pulling up floorboards, that huge mess for just two final scenes, and the de-energizing of narrative after we leave Boucicualt and various narrated versions just short of the finale. The power of the sometimes objectionable stereotypes Boucicault also set up, however progressive he thought he was, are guyed: this is the only thing we can do with them. Yet there’s a residual arc that needs resolution. A deconstructive one doesn’t quite satisfy at the end, and Jacobs-Jenkins might have fashioned something else for Zoe. But of his brilliance there’s no doubt whatsoever. With such a wonderful cast led by the stunning Nwosu this makes the most persuasive and certainly comical case for a re-fashioning that’s now (almost) the only way we can look at this play. As an act of reclamation, it’s the most iconic coup of any period play touching racism – and its hopeless liberal response.