Review: An Octoroon
Capital Stage opened its 2017-18 season last month with An Octoroon, by African-American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins. The playwright’s skin color is important to any critique because the play itself is a postmodern adaptation of a 19th century anti-slavery melodrama written by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, and it is anything but politically correct.
The plot is typical melodrama: A plantation is under threat of foreclosure following the death of the owner. The heir (who comes from post-slavery Ireland) doesn’t know what he’s doing. A bad guy plans to take over the plantation, sell the slaves and ravage the plantation’s so-called “octoroon”—i.e., a beautiful woman who is one-eighth black, but raised white. At the end, they discover the document that will save the plantation and the slaves.
But it’s the dialogue here that will cause uneasiness among the basically white audience and conversations long afterward about the meaning of identity, continuing black-white division in the post-civil rights era, and what’s proper for the stage in today’s politically correct environment.
An Octoroon boasts an inspired cast led by David Everett Moore in white face, Matt K. Miller in red face and Willem Long in black face. Lexy Fridell gives an absolutely inspired performance as the stereotypical Southern belle. Carissa Meagher adds a note of calmness as the octoroon, while slaves Taylor Vaughan, Tiffanie Mack and Alexandra Barthel play to stereotypes of African-American identity. Juan Chavez steals the show as Br’er Rabbit.
This play is provocative and unsettling, uncomfortable, but also hilariously funny. Audiences will either love it or hate it–but they won’t forget it.