An Octoroon Combines Humor With Social Commentary for Downtown Audiences

Posted February 16, 2016 by Brian Keaney in Theater & Arts
Bridgette Hayes and Brandon Green in An Octoroon. Photo Credit: Paul Fox

Few issues in American society today are more talked about, or more contentious, than race. Against that backdrop comes An Octoroon, a popular 19th century play set in the Antebellum South that has been reworked for today’s spectacle obsessed world, and a culture that likes to believe it is post-racial. The co-production of ArtsEmerson, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, and the Paramount Center will leave audiences wondering just how far we have really come.

With a script by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (author of Neighbors, as well as Appropriate), and directed by Summer L. Williams (who also directed Neighbors), An Octoroon is described by the theater company as “an incendiary, subversively funny exploration of identity, jammed with sensation and surprises.” When the curtain opens, the audience quickly discovers that there’s trouble brewing at the Terrebonne Plantation. A slave has been murdered, couples are not coupling up as they are supposed to, and all will be lost if the mail doesn’t arrive soon! Befitting a play set on a southern plantation in 1859, the blushing Southern belles on stage will be surrounded on all sides by dastardly schemes and taboo romantic relationships.

The original version of “The Octoroon,’’ a phrase which describes a person who is one-eighth black, was written by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. It tells the story of of an illicit romance between George Peyton, the heir to a Louisiana plantation, and Zoe, the daughter of a slave and George’s deceased uncle. Jacobs-Jenkins has reworked the original book and crafted a script that tackles the issue of race from angles and viewpoints not commonly attempted, which entertains while also demanding more of his audience.

Brandon Green, a black actor who puts on whiteface while on stage according to the instructions of Jacobs-Jenkins, plays the role of George, while Brooks Reeves, a white actor, has his face painted red to play Wahnotee, a Native American.  The race swapping does not end there.  Harsh Gagoomal, of South Asian ancestry, wears blackface to portray both the elderly slave Pete and a younger slave named Paul.  Shawna M. James ably takes on the role of Zoe.

The winner of the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play, An Octoroon has sold out theaters in New York and has won praise from critics.  The New York Times described it as “hilarious and harrowing… this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today.”  When it debuted, The Village Voice gave its approbation by telling readers it was “a wildly imaginative new work by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins … it insists that making theater can be the best way to talk back to history.”   Closer to home, the Boston Globe said it was “ingenious… If you see ‘An Octoroon,’ you’re likely to find that it stays with you.”

The show is on stage from January 29 to February 27, 2016, and has a run time of 2 hours and 40 minutes with a single intermission.  More information can be found at 617-824-8400, or at www.artsemerson.org.