An Octoroon at Mixed Blood Theatre

William Hodgson in An Octoroon. Photo by Rich Ryan.

William Hodgson in An Octoroon. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Dion Boucicault was a 19th century melodramatist, the fellow who gave us such ne’er-produced masterworks as The School For Scheming and The Vampire. His overwrought potboiler The Octoroon mines the same thin vein of theatrical ore, a play in which we discover (though a process too complicated to summarize) that young and beautiful Zoe is – gasp! – 1/8 black. IOW, she’s an octoroon (“Do you see the blue around the tips of my fingers? The mark of Cain”). IOW, she’s a slave, owned by the recently deceased Widow Peyton. IOW, she’s property. She can, and will be, sold, to the evil moustache-twirling Jacob M’Closkey. It’s never overtly stated, but he intends to, you know, engage in carnal relations with her. Eek!

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins‘s An Octoroon, at Mixed Blood Theatre through November 15, derives, we’re told, from a production of the Boucicault play from which the white actors, in a fit of unprofessional nobility, quit, citing their unwillingness to play racist characters. Personally, I find this hard to believe: didn’t they read the script?

Still, it provides Jacobs-Jenkins with the chance to very freely adapt The Octoroon, using extensive narration, actors in whiteface, in blackface, using often confusing multiple casting, totally confusing puppetry (the rabbit?), long static expositional scenes. An Octoroon works best when it hews to the story material provided by Boucicault, but too often it lurches and wobbles, with characters who create too many unanswered questions. For example: why do the women speak so anachronistically? Why are they so lackadaisical about being sold? Won’t Dido ever put down that blankety-blank broom?

Director Nataki Garrett and her game cast do what they can with the material. Indeed, An Octoroon features some excellent performances. I was especially taken with William Hodgson as the Black Playwright/noble George/nasty M’Closkey. His soft-spoken but focused passion gives An Octoroon power; without him it wouldn’t come close to working. Similarly terrific is Jon Andrew Hegge as Boucicault/the native American Wahnotee/sunburnt Auctioneer. He is lean and tasteful. Jane Froiland provides zest and energy as the antebellum ingenue Dora. I have enjoyed Ricardo Vázquez‘s work in the past (he is a performer of intelligence and power). In An Octoroon, however, I must confess that I found him shrill and off-putting. Although their characters go nowhere, the three women – Jamila Anderson, Chaz Hodges, Jasmine Hughes – are great fun.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark has recently been published. His Sideways Stories From Wayside School and Art Dog will be produced by Childsplay Arizona and Salt Lake Acting Co., respectively. His screenplay A Slaying Song Tonight has been optioned. For more information, please visit www.johnolive.net.

 

 

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