Presented by Company One and ArtsEmerson
Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) I know enough about civil and political rights to know that I don’t know nearly enough to speak with authority; I know enough to know that white people need to shut up and show up in support of the voices of people of color (POCs). That white people have done more than enough talking on behalf of the peoples we oppress. My suggestion is to attend An Octoroon and stay for the talk back. Use your money to express your belief that everyone deserves equal rights and equal representation. Use your attendance as an opportunity to start a respectful conversation about the US’s race problem. Let POCs know that their fight doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The word “octoroon” means, according to Merriam-Webster online, “a person of one-eighth black ancestry.” This means that at one time a child was born from the rape of a slave by a master. Typically, this person enjoyed more privilege than a darker skinned person but was not entitled to freedom of self-ownership. The Octoroon is a 1859 play by Dion Boucicault. An Octoroon is the meta theatre, G&S-like presentational drama/minstrel show adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. In it, Jacobs-Jenkins explains his writing process and expands upon the experiences of the characters of the original play. It’s a vaudevillian ride through antebellum Louisiana about forbidden love, slavery, and white guilt.
Overall, it was a positive experience to sit in the audience. The performances by the cast are very good. Almost too good because there is no denying the visceral experience of anger and pain they trigger. The script is funny and terrifyingly thoughtful. Octoroon is a lot to take in.
I left An Octoroon feeling overwhelmed and numb. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t make the digestion of his play easy. Nor should he, the ongoing, historical tragedy that is the mass killing of black people by white people in America must be observed for what it is. Jacobs-Jenkins is beholden to no one to make his theatre bite-sized and easily chewable. He subverts our modern understanding of racial stereotypes by circumventing definitions of what is acceptable and what isn’t. To clarify, he messes with his audience by purposefully making his play offensive. But he’s offensive to make sharpened points. He’s telling us to examine what we see and why we’re seeing it. He’s asking us why so little has changed for POCs since 1859. If I hadn’t felt numb, there would be something wrong with me. Feeling numb is a natural reaction to trauma.Trauma can teach empathy. It is essential to change that we empathize with the victims of violence.
Several people left during the intermission. An Octoroon was too edgy for them. Please understand, it is our privilege to be offended by such a powerful production. Leaving the audience is a literal act of privilege that gives the show another layer of depth. That the play was written by a black man hoping to make a mark on the predominantly white audience with a disposable income that consumes the majority of theatre may have been lost on those who left. To be clear, if you see An Octoroon and you don’t at least consider feeling offended by the events unfolding onstage, then you aren’t paying attention. Just how, if you aren’t offended by the unevolving state of race relations in the US, then you are most definitely making the problem worse. Don’t make things worse. Go see An Octoroon. Feel offended, learn something new, and help make the world better for everyone. #blacklivesmatter