Off-Broadway Theater Review: AN OCTOROON (by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Soho Rep)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 5, 2014

in Theater-New York


In 1859 Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon opened in New York City to much acclaim. The plot of this suspenseful melodrama centers on George, a young man of Southern birth but liberal education and outlook, who returns from Paris to his uncle’s plantation upon learning of the old man’s demise, and finds the property overwhelmed by debt, with the bank about to foreclose. On the plantation he meets and falls in love with Zoe, who is 1/8th black (an octoroon). Although Zoe is his uncle’s daughter from a slave, his uncle and aunt always treated her as their own, freeing her and giving her a European education. But Zoe has another admirer, the evil and repugnant McClosky, who aims to buy up the estate with all its property once the bank forecloses. Rejected by Zoe, McClosky is thrilled to discover that she was freed after the bank had issued the judgment against the plantation, which means that her freedom papers are void and she’s in fact part of the property, and therefore available for him to buy.

Chris Myers (BJJ) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliant invention that uses Boucicault’s play as its foundation, begins with a young African-American man coming out onto a bare black stage in his underwear and telling us about a visit he had with his therapist, during which they discussed how to deal with his mild depression. The young man (Chris Myers) is the playwright BJJ (these are the author’s initials), and, as he tells his therapist, his gloominess likely stems from his failed attempt to stage The Octoroon, failed because all his white male actors quit, refusing to perform in blackface and calling the play racist.

Chris Myers (M'Closky), Amber Gray (Zoe), Zoë Winters (Dora), Danny Wolohan (Wahnotee) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

Here BJJ takes a moment to inform us that he does not in fact have a therapist, as he can’t afford one, after which he continues to reenact for us this imaginary therapy session, exploring his motivations as a black playwright while putting on whiteface makeup in preparation for the performance. Then, after a brief interaction with Boucicault himself (Danny Wolohan), who is putting on red Indian makeup and feather headdress to play Wahnotee, a Native-American character, the entire wall at the rear of the stage suddenly falls forward, and we find ourselves on a cotton plantation, inside The Octoroon proper. Well, sort of.

Chris Myers (George), Danny Wolohan (Lafouche), Amber Gray (Zoe) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

When the wall falls there appears to be some malfunction and the actors are asked to leave the stage while the stage hands fix it. I don’t know (and don’t want to know) if this is part of the show. But if it isn’t it should be, as it fits perfectly with the self-conscious nature of this production. We are continually reminded of the fact that we are watching a play, lest we succumb to the lofty safety offered by the hundred-and-fifty-year-old melodrama. An Octoroon isn’t so much about slavery, it seems to me, as it is about the current place of the African-American person in American theater and by extension in American’s mythological, psychological, and spiritual life.

Zoë Winters (Dora) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

Director Sarah Benson does an outstanding job of, among other things, keeping these themes alive while making the show an absolute delight. Budgetary constraints are overcome with inspiration and inventiveness. Matt Frey’s lighting, with its colors and layers, gives shape and depth to Mimi Lien’s nearly bare, white stage littered with cotton balls. Lester St. Louis’s captivating cello playing fills the atmosphere with the humid sense of dread, underscoring the drama unfolding on the plantation. And César Alvarez’s songs and score, both intimate and poignant, perfectly complement and expand on the action.

Marsha Stephanie Blake (Dido), Chris Myers (M'Closky) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

The entire cast, often playing against type, is tremendous under Ms. Benson’s nurturing hands. Amber Gray infuses her Zoe with a delicate and refined charm, and when she sings her voice gives me shivers. Zoë Winters is a pleasure as Dora, a somewhat goofy but pretentious and wealthy Southern belle who is in love with George. Shyko Amos, Jocelyn Bioh, and Marsha Stephanie Blake are a hoot as the three slaves Grace, Minnie and Dido.

Marsha Stephanie Blake (Dido), Jocelyn Bioh (Minnie) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

In blackface, Ben Horner, who is white and looks to be in his 20’s, plays an old black Assistant; in whiteface, Mr. Myers plays George and M’Closky. Both do a remarkable job of making their characters believable and sympathetic while still periodically reminding us that we are watching a play (M’Closky’s mustache is strapped-on with two elastic bands looped around Myers’ ears). As for Mr. Myers, he is the standout in his three major and completely different roles; at one point he has a knife fight with himself as George and M’Closky, and he pulls it off beautifully, playing it with just the right mix of drama and campiness.

Chris Myers (BJJ), Danny Wolohan (Playwright) in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON at SoHo Rep.

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photos by Pavel Antonov

An Octoroon
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street
in association with John Adrian Selzer
scheduled to end on May 24, 2014
EXTENDED to June 8, 2014
for tickets, call 212.352.3101
or visit Soho Rep

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