Two timelines collide in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octaroon, the impact of which has produced devastating results. Organised within the framework of Diou Boucicault’s The Octaroon (1859), the theatrical landscape of both the present-day and nineteenth century is tested through a critique of Boucicault’s representation of race. Performed in the round, the space is established by its marked wooden floorboards. However, rather than feeling bare, the stage hums with expectation, and so when Jacobs-Jenkin’s alter ego produces the world of the play from a cardboard box, there begins a magic of the most ingenious sort.
Set on a plantation in Louisiana, this Victorian melodrama maintains its original characters and plot, but the stereotypes found within are uprooted and brought to the attention of the audience. Ripples of racist language stretch across the actors as they allude to the practice of ‘blackface’ by applying thick makeup. Others don a white or ‘redface’ to magnify the prejudice that was so present in minstrel shows, while incredibly, attacking the form with an electrifying sense of humour.
Multi-roling is also used as an epic comic device, most notably by Ken Nwosu as the characters of Jacobs-Jenkins, George and M’Closky. Indeed, the presence of Brechtian techniques throughout makes the drama self-aware, which becomes poignant in its ability to make the spectator self-conscious. The play works to expose the skeleton of performance, forcing those who watch it to consider the representation of oppression and actual oppression as they exist in the same space. Jacobs-Jenkin’s notices how dated the original text is, and works hard to uncover that impossible experience of novelty in an age that has the universe at its fingertips.
The mood onstage is volatile. It changes like the weather, and is transformed by light (designed by Elliot Griggs) and sound (by George Dennis). Concrete inequities are layered with surreal imagery – a musician trapped in a vacuum of dust is juxtaposed by the ferocity of a tap-dancing rabbit, as well as a so-called Native American shooting fiery arrows into the night. The action is full of unsuspecting textures and moves quickly, at times interrupted by static as it panics in the dark.
An Octaroon is alive. Its structure is so diverse that it becomes a creature of its own making. The piece inhales fear and lets out breath in hoarse amusement. Gravity shifts, with elements rising from the floor and falling from the ceiling. It is sickening, and it is joyful. It is gripping and it is repulsive. It is fiction, but it is also reality. Regrettably, the show is sold out for the entire run, but tickets are available through Day seats and Friday Rush. Even so, Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative wizardry is not an adventure to be missed.
An Octaroon is playing at the Dorfman Theatre until July 18
Photo: Helen Murray