An Octoroon — Image via mixedblood.com

An Octoroon

Mixed Blood Theatre
Directed by Nataki Garrett

An Octoroon is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s rewriting of a 1859 melodrama called The Octoroon by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. Currently playing at Mixed Blood Theatre, it proves to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile meditation upon racial representation and theater’s longstanding practice of using the stage to explore society’s many social and political demons.

The Octoroon was enormously popular in its day, but its themes were by no means unique. The 19th century was rife with novels, poems, essays, tracts, and plays about “the tragic mulatto,” a young and beautiful woman who was usually the daughter of a slave mother and her white owner. This figure was usually depicted as a morally upright object of desire, and because she was forced to straddle the divide between black and white worlds without fully belonging to either, she was usually doomed to escalating misery and a premature death.

In the 19th century mania for classification, a “quadroon” was the term used to classify someone who was one-quarter black, and “octoroon” described someone who was one-eighth black. These classifications were imprecise and were rooted in false convictions about the legibility of race. Nevertheless, mixed-race slaves, particularly women, were consistently depicted in literature not only as sexually desirable but also as politically powerful tools because abolitionists could more easily argue the immorality of slavery when they could point to enslaved people who were partially or mostly white. Both Jacobs-Jenkins and director Nataki Garrett are well aware of this history, and they do an admirable job of not just exposing it but also critiquing and parodying it — sometimes playfully, sometimes scathingly.

An Octoroon — Image via mixedblood.comDeeply rooted in the pathos-laden conventions of 19th century melodrama, An Octoroon is most successful when it is repackaging these conventions for a 21st century audience in a way that highlights their awkwardness, their simplistic yet often satisfying tidiness, and their inherent racism. In fact, An Octoroon often dives into explicit absurdity for the purposes of illustrating how our current media depictions of African-Americans are not that far removed from the smiling, cake-walking negroes that populated many an antebellum minstrel show. A particularly effective example of this is found in the depictions of Dido (Jamila Anderson) and Minnie (Jasmine Hughes), two slave women who speak in stereotyped modern-day “ghetto” vernacular, forcing viewers to ask themselves if depictions of black people in the media have become any more nuanced and multifaceted than they were 150 years ago.

Like many newer plays, An Octoroon is deeply aware of itself and comments upon theatrical apparatuses of storytelling as much as it focuses on race, gender, and history. This becomes especially evident in the first act when the playwright, referred to as BJJ and compellingly played by William Hodgson, tells us that the impetus for what we are about to see was his therapist’s advice to rework Boucicault’s narrative in order to think through many of the struggles he has experienced as a young black playwright. The play is set up as one man’s attempt to better understand his reality against the backdrop of a difficult historical legacy, the remnants of which are still keenly felt today in both artistic and socio-political ways.

An Octoroon — Image via mixedblood.comAlthough this self-awareness never really leaves the play, it is reasserted as An Octoroon builds towards its dramatic conclusion, and it results in the characters gently poking fun at the narrative shortcomings of the fundamental conflict/crisis/resolution structure of most plays, as well as the one-dimensional characterization of both villain and ingenue. Similarly, the stock characters are fleshed out in ways that raise questions about how and why both history and art often focus on singular narrative threads.

Not only is An Octoroon deeply aware of the mechanics of playwriting; it is also relentlessly interested in interrogating the social construction of race. Throughout the play we see actors in whiteface, blackface, and redface, and our perceptions of racial sensitivity are constantly challenged, particularly when a black actor (Hodgson) plays the role of slave owner and levels vitriol at other black (or black-faced) characters. Witnessing characters racially transform on stage situates the viewer as an uncomfortable accomplice to something they’re not quite sure they should be condoning, and it begs the question, once more, of how different we are from our nineteenth century counterparts. Perhaps, like the pseudo-scientists of centuries past who thought they could determine race by examining fingernails, hair texture, and the whites of eyes, we want characters to play the race they appear to be, because this would ultimately be simpler and not really force us to question our own racially based assumptions.

An Octoroon — Image via mixedblood.comAs with any ambitious piece of art, An Octoroon has its moments of ideological inconsistency, but on the whole these moments are more fruitful than they are frustrating. As one such example, the play takes great pains to mock a beloved 19th century plot device of the incriminating daguerreotype: an image that outs the truth, in the nick of time of course, and restores order and incriminates the guilty. Although he allows the plot device to stand, BJJ asserts that there is no way an image could hold the same degree of power in contemporary society, given both the constant onslaught of images we receive through social media and our widespread knowledge that images are easily doctored and thus can no longer convey truth. This is all well and good as an indictment of the way mass media sterilizes our emotional responses to difficult images, but this assertion is then followed by projected images of lynched black bodies, which are, of course, tremendously disturbing. While I’m never in favor of shying away from the more heinous aspects of American history, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to take from this moment, juxtaposed as it was with the confident declaration that images have lost their ability to transmit truth. Are images powerful or aren’t they? Are we meant to let ourselves be impacted by them or not? What is their relationship to truth, and how has this relationship been complicated by technology? If this moment felt a little muddled, it has led to some intense pondering on my part, and this, most likely, was the production’s aim, more so than the dissemination of a clearly translatable message or moral of the sort you would find in conventional melodrama.

An Octoroon is unsettling, infinitely thought-provoking, and expertly acted. Plus, there’s a creepy life-sized Br’er Rabbit (Gregory Parks) involved. What more could you possibly want? The play runs until Nov. 15 and continues Mixed Blood’s streak of plays that will stick with you long after the curtain closes.

Photos by Rich Ryan

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.