How do you deal with slavery as a black American playwright? Take someone else’s play, and play with it. Problematise it. Take the piss out of it. Take the piss out of the idea, too, of a ‘black playwright’ being constantly expected to confront race issues. But don’t forget to still punch the audience in the guts.
That’s what Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does in An Octoroon. A hit in New York, it begins with a depressed playwright, BJJ, whose therapist suggests he adapts a work he admires; he chooses Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama, The Octoroon, about a girl who, being one-eighth black, cannot marry the noble white plantation owner she falls in love with.
But you just can’t get white actors to play plantation owners and slave dealers these days – so BJJ (Ken Nwosu, superbly confident in the part) decides he’ll have to whiteface himself, while his assistant dons blackface to play the male slaves. Then in crashes Boucicault himself, moaning about being neglected, before donning bright red facepaint to play Wahnotee, a Native American character.
They set about staging The Octoroon, in a low-budget, cartoonishly amateur style, broadly sending up the sentimentality and silliness of the plot. But of course that also means the normal-for-1859, totally-problematic-for-2017 scenes of slaves bowing and scraping, of brutal prejudice, are served up by chaotic, capering actors in black/white/redface. It’s squirm-inducing, prodding at our anxieties over representation of race and who is ‘allowed’ to play whom.
Female characters are all played by actresses of their own ethnicity, and – apart from Dora, a cruelly caricatured Southern Belle – allowed to be ‘real’. But there’s also a time slip. Two slave girls speak in a sassy, snappy modern idiom, all ‘I know right’ and ‘yes, girl’. It’s a fresh, funny, clever move, and these scenes are performed with real zest by Vivian Oparah and Emmanuella Cole. It also helps break up the retelling of Boucicault’s play – something it sorely needs. Although Jacobs-Jenkins often smartly deconstructs it, there’s still a hell of a lot of plot to get through, and there are times when mockingly staging this schmaltzy stuff wears thin.
Mostly, however, An Octoroon keeps you on your toes. It’s bold, fearless playwrighting: laughing in the face of racism as well as allowing the horror of history to spell itself out. The play’s cockiness is matched with confident direction from Ned Bennett that knows when to shout and when to whisper. Towards the end, BJJ – after explaining how the form of the melodrama emotionally manipulates an audience – concludes, ‘Anyway. The whole point of this thing was to make you feel something.’ For all its arch self-reflection on the theatre and its tricks, An Octoroon works because, at moments, it does.