Discomforting the Audience: Racial Satire in ArtsWest’s An Octoroon

 All photos by John McLellan

All photos by John McLellan

 
 

When the Obie award-winning play An Octoroon opened its second Off-Broadway run in 2015, The New York Times trumpeted its author, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as “one of the country’s most original and illuminating writers about race…[producing] a work based on a terminally dated play from more than 150 years ago [which] may turn out to be this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today” (Brantley “Review: An Octoroon”). Jacobs-Jenkins went on to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, which comes with a $625,000 prize, and the play has been performed across the world. The MacArthur Foundation characterizes Jacobs-Jenkins’s work as “[using] a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings” (Gans “Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins”). An Octoroon made its Seattle debut as part of ArtsWest’s 2017–2018 season. In the case of An Octoroon, both the script and the ArtsWest production cries out for historical, genre, and racial performance contextualization to be fully successful. Much like The Nance, which I critiqued earlier this year, An Octoroon bites off more than it can chew (in terms of giving a salient critique of racialized performance that lands with contemporary audiences), but it’s more the fault of the play than the players.

 

Before I explain why the play ultimately fails to say much about race, I want to give credit to the ArtsWest team, director Brandon J. Simmons, and the dedicated cast for taking a messy, complicated play and running with it. Performances across the board were exciting: quite skilled in terms of physicality, and you can tell that most of the performers did their homework on studying the tropes of Minstrel Shows, Vaudeville, and the 19th century American melodrama. Standouts in the cast include Lamar Legend, playing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins / George / M’Closky, and Brandon J.  Simmons (playing it coy and leaving his own name out of the program in his role as a meta-Brer Rabbit figure). At the very least, this production deserves props for how uncomfortable it made the hyper-PC O+W (old+white) Seattleites. I love watching O+W audience members trying to suss out things like: “if I laugh at that Filipino actor playing an Uncle Tom (in blackface) who is constantly referred to by that Black actor (in whiteface) as ‘old Nigger Pete’ am I being racist??” I find that particular stripe of “woke” Seattleite discomfort hilarious.

 

This begs the question: Is the play supposed to be a comedy? To me, categorically, yes. But it is filled with the kind of humor that’s funny because it’s underpinned by performance conventions, themes, or interactions between characters that are overtly racist (and the play makes sure you know that we’re laughing together about something fucked up). For example: Dedra D. Woods and Jéhan Òsanyin play two house slaves (Minnie and Dido) and in the final scene of the play have a conversation where Dido assures Minnie that “you are not your job” and that it is important to make time for you, in the midst of daily house-slaving duties. The dissonance between historical reality (the value of a slave being wholly defined based on their potential for labor / productivity) and the contemporary self-care mantras being spouted by Minnie creates the comedy. This is where the play really succeeds—by creating pointed moments of dissonance between historical realities and how we talk about race, labor, and property today. Woods and Òsanyin play this perfectly, deftly moving between these moments of dissonance and “acting the slave” when the primary plot of the play kicks back in.

 

So, if you didn’t see the production, you’re probably wondering what An Octoroon is about. In a nutshell, it’s a satire, and near complete rendition, of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 antebellum melodrama: The Octoroon. <Deep breath as we travel back to the 19th century.> After achieving fame and fortune on the London stage, Anglo-Irish playwright-manager-actor and master of melodrama Boucicault spent 1854– 1860 traveling, writing and performing in the US. Boucicault spent a brief period living in New Orleans, where he encountered Southern plantation life and economies in their heyday. In 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War, Boucicault premiered his antebellum melodrama, The Octoroon, at The Winter Garden Theater in New York City. The original play, itself an adaptation of Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel The Quadroon, is set on a Louisiana plantation, and its primary plot follows George Peyton, heir to the financially failing plantation, and his socially impossible love of Zoe, daughter of George’s recently deceased uncle and a slave: Dora. Jacob McClosky, an overseer and the play’s moustache-twirling villain, is set on acquiring both Terrebonne Plantation and Zoe for himself. He knows Zoe’s secret: She’s an octoroon (one-eighth Black). And through a series of unfortunate / improbable events—suppressed legal documents that would forgive the plantation’s debt, McClosky’s public outing of Zoe as an octoroon, and the murder of a young slave boy, Paul, (caught in the crossfire) which is captured on a photographic plate—everything goes wrong for Zoe and George. McClosky is eventually revealed as the murderer and the one who obstructed delivery of the legal documents forgiving the plantation’s debt. But, in fashion true to the tragic melodrama form, Zoe dies before she hears the news, thus fulfilling her role as the tragic mulatto which justifies the ultimate antislavery stance of the play. Of course, Zoe poisons herself just before she learns that McClosky was proven guilty of Paul’s murder and that George has legally taken ownership of Terrebonne Plantation. Zoe dies (tragically) in George’s arms.

 

It’s worth noting that in a later version of the play, performed in England, Boucicault changed the ending to triumphantly unite George and Zoe. There is rampant speculation about why Boucicault settled on a re-write, but many theatrical scholars agree that it was due in large part to British audiences “rejecting the abolitionist message they had found moving ten years before in dramatic versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Meer 82). The shift between versions is significant in-as-much as the first version highlights the “unbridgability of racial divisions,” whereas the London version suggests a mixed-race romantic pairing is possible despite the social conventions and US laws against it (83). Regardless of the political resonances underpinning Zoe’s death or marriage, Boucicault was a tireless showman and notorious crowd-pleaser, and when asked about the change in endings he joked:

“there are some people who find fault with the amendment, and who suggest that as tastes differ, and some playgoers delight in being made extremely miserable, the heroine should try to please both sorts of her admirers, by killing herself one night and marrying the next.”

So no one really knows for sure. It might have just been all about the ticket sales for Boucicault.

 

Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon is a satire of all that: conventions of the melodrama genre, racial performance, slavery, mixed-race romantic love. A big job to be sure. It begins with a wonderfully provocative, albeit overly long, prologue-slash-recap where the character Jacobs-Jenkins recounts a recent therapy session where he laments the struggles of being a Black playwright and the pressures of managing the racist expectations of white audiences, actors, and critics that Black playwrights are obligated to say something particularly profound about the universal Black experience. Of course, there is no such thing as the “universal” Black experience, and the weight of representation is an undue burden for POC creatives. Jacobs-Jenkins (Legend) delivers the monologue in nothing but some tight, black briefs as he meticulously applies the exaggerated white-face makeup that he’ll use throughout the play in his dual roles as George / M’Closky (the play’s white protagonist and antagonist of Boucicault’s original play). The prologue then shifts to Boucicault, played by Mike Dooly, whose carping monologue outlines the pressures of being an Irish, melodrama playwright working in 19th century theater from Boucicault’s perspective. He largely grumbles about actors of color as he puts on red-face to play Wahnotee, the American Indian character.

 

It’s important to understand the no-holds-barred tone of these two monologues coupled with the historically weighted act of putting on whiteface or redface (on stage, no less). I loved the prologue, and my dramaturge-self was intrigued. It made me hopeful that Jacobs-Jenkins’s play would be able to juggle the historical complexity of racial performance and funky genre of the 19th century melodrama to do something truly groundbreaking. From the start, the audience is asked to embrace explicit cross-racial casting and what I think Jacobs-Jenkins (and maybe the ArtsWest team) think of as shockingly irreverent use white / red / and blackface and dialect to appropriate and satirize the racial and genre formations of Boucicault’s play. An Octoroon invites the audience to look inward and critique its expectations of how / why / if racial performance works on the contemporary stage while vacillating back and forth between lampooning melodrama and then leaning in to the genre conventions and tropes of racial performance to “make the play work.”  

 

Let’s talk about the forgivable, but inaccurate, historical and geographic representations in Jacobs-Jenkins’s play. Both his and Boucicault’s plays are set in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, a specific geographic enclave where the main cash crop was sugar, not cotton. Though Louisiana produced something like one sixth of all cotton grown in the US between 1840–1860, and approximately one-third of the cotton exports, Terrebonne Parish was sugar land. As a matter of fact, nearly 100% of the sugar produced in the US during the Antebellum period came from Louisiana. (Boucicault references “sugar” or “cane” 20-plus times in his original play but “cotton” only comes up three times.) This is important for two reasons. First, the land around Terrebonne is mostly low-lying swampland. Cotton production was challenging work and sugar flourished in this mucky, wet bayou region. The bayou space of Terrebonne is crucial to the drama of the original play, similar to how it’s used in Kate Chopin’s short story “Beyond the Bayou,” where the untamable wildness of the bayou is used as a topographical and psychic boundary for the Black characters. This “bayou boundary” helps illustrate the inner struggle of the slaves: Do they continue their forced labor in service of the white economy or should they roll the dice and attempt an escape to freedom through the bayou?

 

In the early acts of The Octoroon, the uncertainty of the bayou terrifies Zoe. Boucicault aligns her fear of being outed as mixed-race with the slaves’ fear of escape / re-capture in the bayou. In the fifth act, after McClosky reveals that Zoe is an octoroon and that he intends to purchase her, she decides to kill herself using poison from Dido rather than risk death in the bayou. Zoe explains:

I rose up, and stole from the house, and ran down to the bayou; but its cold, black, silent stream terrified me – drowning must be so horrible a death. I could not do it. Then, as I knelt there, weeping for courage, a snake rattled beside me. I shrunk from it and fled. Death was there beside me, and I dared not take it. O! I’m afraid to die; yet I am more afraid to live. (The Octoroon, Act V). 

Boucicault protects Zoe’s role as the tragic mulatta in her dignified death by poison: a white death, à la Juliet Capulet. Zoe’s rejection of the bayou space is a rejection of a “Black death” or “Black freedom” through escape: a radical act of claiming one’s autonomy. Through Zoe’s fear of the bayou Boucicault foregrounds Zoe’s whiteness rather than her blackness. Thus, the white audience is spared the obligation of sympathizing with a true racial “other” and can feel a “pure sympathy” for Zoe’s suicide.

 

The Louisiana bayou space is a weighty historical and racial signifier. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play doesn’t take the space of the bayou or sugar production economy seriously. Rather, the stage, at least in the ArtsWest production, was covered in cotton – cue the general signifier of plantation slave economies and US south. In the Jacobs-Jenkins script the Setting/At Rise description reads: “The plantation Terrebonne, in Louisiana. A branch of the Mississippi is seen winding through the estate. A low-built but extensive planter’s dwelling, surrounded with a verandah. Or not. (Perhaps it’s just a theatre full of cotton)” (Jacobs-Jenkins 13). It’s really too bad that Jacobs-Jenkins didn’t lean in to the historical and geographic specificities of Terrebonne Parish (bayou and sugar), because I think that this is one of the most interesting elements of Boucicault’s original. To be fair to Jacobs-Jenkins, there are a few passing references to “the swamp” in his script. The slaves occasionally mention “the swamp” and even M’Closky and George have one throwaway reference apiece: M’Closky rides his horse through the swamp and George suggests that Captain Ratts might want to “invest in swamps” (Jacobs-Jenkins 29-30). However, in Jacobs-Jenkins’s play “the swamp” is never established as having a particular economic, historical, or racial connotation to it – it’s just thrown in as a general descriptor. More importantly, Zoe is never explicitly connected to the bayou space in the Jacobs-Jenkins version. As an expert in literature and drama from/about the Louisiana bayou (19th century-present) I’m admittedly biased (and picky), but this seems like a pretty big historical, literary, and geographic oversight on Jacobs-Jenkins’ part. To me, this is why Zoe’s death is so lackluster in Jacobs-Jenkins’s version: the bayou space doesn’t truly exist in the world of the play and, as a result, her death seems totally random (not obviously connected to her racial identity at all). 

 

Now, for the unforgivable inconsistencies. The strangest aspect of An Octoroon is its uneven treatment of the melodrama genre and the legacy of racial performance in American literature and on the American stage. Critics like to talk about An Octoroon as a brilliant piece of post-post-“meta-theater” or a deconstruction of the melodrama genre (since that’s what Jacobs-Jenkins was working with in Boucicault’s original text). I can get behind the play’s classification as a “critique of the melodrama genre” for the first 3 acts of the play. Let’s put it this way: I honest to God can’t decide if Jacobs-Jenkins’ play is a brilliant mash-up that waves a gleeful, adolescent middle finger at genre convention or just an anemic meta-critique of a theatrical history and literary legacy of racial performance that goes flaccid in the fourth act, disappointing everyone.

 

Here’s why the fourth act changes everything. In the original play’s fourth act, as with all melodramas, there’s a flashy reveal of crucial information designed to shock the audience, thus redirecting the entire plot and resolution. For Boucicault, this crucial reveal comes from Pete (the oldest slave) who presents a photographic plate that captured McClosky’s murder of Paul (the slave boy). Before Pete arrives to save the day with the photographic plate the slave buyers accuse Wahnotee, the American Indian, of Pete’s murder. (There was blood on his tomahawk and Wahnotee has spent most of the play pal-ing around with Pete, etc.) The photographic plate, as Jacobs-Jenkins’s explains, was a particularly interesting way to excite the audience because photography was a new technology at the time. The whole idea of a juicy, violent “whodunnit” reveal with the material forensics of a photographic plate would have been truly awesome in 1859.

 

Here’s where Jacobs-Jenkins’s purpose eludes me: in order to create a similar sensation (the audience shock factor of the fourth act reveal) the characters project gruesome stock photos of a Black lynching onto a large screen. The MacArthur Foundation explains this sensationalism writing, “although the provocation of his audience is purposeful, Jacobs-Jenkins’s creation of unsettling, shocking, often confrontational moments is not gratuitous; these elements are of a piece with the world he has established on stage and in service of the story he is telling” (Gans “Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins”). This is where I must agree to disagree: The lynching images aren’t in service of the story he’s telling. The images are problematic for at least a couple of reasons. First, lynching, as an illegal form of fatal mob violence, was in its heyday between 1882 and 1930 in the US south—producing more than 3,000 victims. I’m not suggesting that lynching didn’t take place before 1882 (obviously it did), but I argue that the image of the Black corpse hanging from a tree is way more evocative of the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era than the Antebellum South. There’s a weird conflation of all historicized violence against Black bodies which draws attention away from the “one-drop” law focus of the primary plot. The Boucicault play is certainly about the legal discourse surrounding race in the 19th century (on the eve of the Civil War) but to make the “big reveal” about lynching suggests that that was a main concern the antebellum period, which is historically inaccurate. During the era of US slavery, Black bodies are conceptualized as entirely disposable commodities. Chattel slavery relied on the philosophy that violence against Black bodies is a nonissue: production and sustainability trump personhood.

 

Second, it’s weird that in the “fourth act,” Jacobs-Jenkins starts relying on the conventions and structure of the melodrama form. Up until this point, the play irreverently riffs on the form and content of the original. I found it odd that the play is so concerned with critiquing the problematic structure of the genre for the first three acts but then relies on that very structure to have audiences “feel for feelings’ sake" in the fourth act. So, does the playwright really want to critique melodrama, or does he merely want to exploit its emotional devices?  

 

What I’m left with at the end of the play is the feeling that for all its potential, this play is a shallow critique of a racist performance tradition. Yes, Boucicault’s 19th century melodrama is chock full of racist, sexist, and classist portrayals of Black and native populations from the perspective of the contemporary audience. However, I’m not sure what this knowledge, or the satire / complete rendition of Jacobs-Jenkins’s version, provides in terms of translatable commentary about racial formations in the US today, or more specifically, what An Octoroon is suggesting about contemporary representations of race on stage. Perhaps if we really want to shock an audience into some sort of transcendent revelation about racial performance or historicized violence against Black folks somebody should just stage Boucicault’s Octoroon in its unaltered state.

 


Works Cited