Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Taming of the Shrew
Director Nataki Garrett ably negotiates the complications of Jacobs-Jenkins' script, built on the bones of The Octoroon, an 1859 melodrama by Anglo-Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, assisted by the talented cast members. The original work concerns race relations on an antebellum Louisiana plantationcentering on the doomed love of the new master for an octoroon, a woman with one great-grandparent of African descentbut the playwright goes deeper to examine the issue of race itself.
In the prologue, an actor representing Jacobs-Jenkins (Jon Hudson Odom) addresses the audience and explains that he created the play that follows as a form of therapy, a way to move beyond the label of "black playwright." He faces a challenge by the ghost of Boucicault (James Konicek) and both of them enter the theatrical world: the playwright in whitefacethe color of paint, not Caucasian skinas both the master and his nemesis, the plantation's vengeful overseer, and Boucicault in deep red makeup as the Indian Wahnotee, a role the man played in the actual 1859 production. The playwright's assistant (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) plays two slaves, one elderly and one a boy, in blackface with exaggerated red lips.
The playwright keeps upending expectations throughout the performance. When slaves Dido (Erika Rose, majestic) and Minnie (Shannon Dorsey, outspoken) converse privately, they speak in a contemporary idiom, while Castillo-Midyett's characters use the 19th-century interpretation of black dialect and Konicek says almost nothing as Wahnotee, although he gets to speak in two other roles. Zoe (Kathryn Tkel), the octoroon who sees herself as cursed by her mixed blood, speaks in a florid melodramatic style, as do the southern belle Dora (Maggie Wilder) and Odom in both his roles. (Fight choreographer Robb Hunter has staged an uproarious battle for one performer between the master and the overseer.) And then there's the life-size rabbit (Jobari Parker-Namdar) who keeps scampering through the action.
The entire cast is outstanding, but Odom dazzles as he slips from one character to another, Tkel brings sincere emotion to her role, and Wilder is a hoot as she's continuously upstaged by her circus-tent-size hoop skirts (designed by Ivania Stack). A solo cellist (Katie Chambers on opening night) provides understated support with music co-composed by Christylez Bacon and Wytold, although some of the most resonant moments of the play are silent.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company