Spine: ‘An Octoroon,’ ‘The Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ re-imagining of Dion Boucicault’s pre-Civil War classic The Octoroon, opened last night at Woolly Mammoth.

Postmodern, hip, sardonic, farcical–An Octoroon deals with that most funny of phenomena, sexual slavery.

ames Konicek, Kathryn Tkel, Jon Hudson Odom, and Erika Rose. Photo by Scott Suchman.
James Konicek, Kathryn Tkel, Jon Hudson Odom, and Erika Rose. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not really “funny”, of course, but then we have war, as in Oh, What a Lovely War, Joan Littlewood’s satiric take on World War I’s pointless, gas-filled, body-filled trenches and fields.

Human beings can laugh at anything if given the proper motivation, and even if history is a bitch, or a bastard, who won’t lessen its grip on our genitalia.

Fortunately, America has no history, except Disneyland and the paranormal, and they don’t have genitalia.

Then, again, who needs history: according to the International Labor Organization and Equality Now, “trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. This, despite the fact international law and the laws of 134 countries criminalize sex trafficking.”

In other words, An Octoroon’s sexual slavery is as contemporary as the Super Bowl.

I suppose its humor is designed to allow its medicine to go down easily, even if that medicine doesn’t cure anything because it really isn’t medicine.

Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon takes us deep into the contemporary “mash up”, a term first coined by Boucicault himself in his The Octoroon. Wahnotee, the play’s American Indian, “speaks a mash up of Indian, French, and ‘Merican.” Thus, “he doesn’t understand” anything.

In Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, a different kind of “mash up” occurs, and one could easily argue that “we don’t understand” exactly what we’ve just witnessed in the end either, but Director Nataki Garrett sure gives us a good time along the way.

An Octoroon mashes 1850’s style American theatre (driven by 5-act, large cast, middle-class melodramas dealing with social issues [like slavery] and sensational spectacle [think explosions, Hollywood action thrillers] with contemporary American theatre (driven by one-act, small cast [or one-person], MFA refined, psychologically begotten ironies [like “who am I, why am I here, and who the fuck cares?”]).

The result is a bizarre postmodern comedy of sorts that starts as a one-man show where a playwright named BJJ (played by the wonderfully talented and charismatic and [truth be told] bi-racial Jon Hudson Odom) discusses with his imagined therapist his identity as an under-recognized playwright, or (more importantly) as a socially categorized “black” playwright (though his world consists primarily of white theatre people and, even though he is, after all, bi-racial).

During this one-person prologue where contemporary identity politics is splayed open like a da Vinci carcass, the spirit of Dion Boucicault (portrayed by the lanky and disheveled James Konicek) is summoned; but not before BJJ dons White Face so as to play the two slave owners in Boucicault’s The Octoroon, George and M’Closky.

 Jon Hudson Odom. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Jon Hudson Odom. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Unlike the psychoanalyzed and neurotic BJJ, Dion is all rough and tumble showman, a shining New York theatrical star of his day at his very own Winter Garden Theatre.

While Dion dons Red Face to play the aforementioned American Indian, his assistant (the versatile Joseph Castillo-Midyett) dons Black Face to play the slave-owner George’s faithful slaves Pete and Paul.

Then we meet the women: the slaves played by Kathryn Tkel (Zoe, the octoroon), Shannon Dorsey (Minnie, the house slave), Erika Rose (Dido, another house slave), and Jade Wheeler (Grace, a field slave). And the slave owner played by Maggie Wilder (Dora, of the incredibly huge hoop skirts–special kudos to Costume Designer Ivania Stack).

Unlike the male characters, these female characters do not don face paint to change the complexion of their skin.

Unlike most of the characters, Minnie and Dido maintain a distinctly contemporary vernacular even as they discuss, and suffer the repercussions of, living within a culture that sells for sex and profit the bodies (if not the hearts) of living breathing human beings. And the laughter is contagious.

Another aspect of the mash up that cannot be overlooked (only because it could quite easily be overlooked) is the part of Br’er Rabbit (played by the incredibly silent Jobari Parker-Namdar — don’t worry, he gets to speak, albeit briefly, when he plays the role of Ratts, the riverboat slave owner.) This bunny pops his cottontail in and out of the action, as if to say: “I’m the slave’s perspective.”

The result of all these mash up(s) is a delirious landscape of psycho-social iconography where significance has been subsumed, not by a sea of de-constructed characters, but by a universe of re-constructed identities and perspectives that now define our culture.

Too many values have been given by too many people to too many things: thus, nothing has value. Even the once almighty photograph, as in photographic evidence (a novelty when The Octoroon first opened), has been reconstructed, i.e., doctored, so many times by so many people only a fool believes what they see (just think Victoria Secret models).

Yet, we people want so desperately to believe, in something, and the photograph and its Frankensteinian kin, the video, still remain our last window on truth.

It has become a given in our society that race is a social construct: “white”, “black”, “red”, “yellow” are all categories that Europe and America’s racist societies and their governing elites developed so as to better control the world that they had wrought, a world full of an angry, hungry “rabble”

The Octoroon, with its sex slaves and its lynching, represented on a New York stage, allowed Americans to engage in a discussion about what those phenomena meant for America then, and for America during and after the Civil War.

Erika Rose and Kathryn Tkel. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Erika Rose and Kathryn Tkel. Photo by Scott Suchman.

An Octoroon, with its sex slaves and its lynching and its disembodied (or alienated) “black” playwright, represented on a Washington, DC, stage, allows Americans to engage in a discussion about what race and power and identity politics might still mean to ‘Merica now, and ‘Merica tomorrow, before or after any new Civil War that might be coming.

True to that “activist” mentality, Woolly Mammoth is offering a slew of extra-theatrical events that allow audiences to engage with others about the show.

True to its Br’er Rabbit mentality, An Octoroon won’t really care if you discuss the show later; for that feisty bunny will go hip-hopping in and out of your dreams for years to come.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.

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An Octoroon plays through June 26 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

An Octoroon reviewed by David Gerson on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Magic Time! ‘An Octoroon’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.



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