Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

An Octoroon
Mixed Blood Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Realish Housewives of Edina, Henry IV, Part One, and Glensheen


William Hodgson and Megan Burns
Photo by Rich Ryan
An Octoroon, a new play written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins that launches Mixed Blood Theatre's 2015-16 season, is a fantasia based on The Octoroon, the 19th century melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault. The Octoroon was hugely popular in its era, second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in the number of performances it played. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, it appeared shortly before the Civil War (in 1859) and its depiction of the sexual exploitation of slaves fueled the fires of the abolitionist movement.

The term "octoroon" referred to a person who was, by birth, one-eighth Black. Boucicault's play, set in and around Terrebonne, a plantation in antebellum Louisiana, is the story of doomed love between the titular "octoroon" Zoe and George Peyton, nephew of Terrebonne's aged masters who, being childless, raised Zoe as if she were their own. In a secondary plot line the villainous Jacob McClosky schemes to get control of Terrebonne and its slaves, especially Zoe, the object of his lustful desires.

Branden Jacob-Jenkins makes himself a character in his own play—listed as BJJ In the program—and introduces the work as a therapeutic exercise drawing on his favorite play, or at least one that greatly interests him. He embarks on an update of The Octoroon, only to find that its dated text is so politically incorrect, no white actors will play the roles of Peyton or McClosky. He resorts to putting on white-face and the garb of a 19th century gentleman to play those roles himself.

As we—Jacob Jenkins and his audience—slip into the antebellum south, Boucicault himself appears, drunkenly declaiming the indignities of a playwright touring with his work and given far too little respect for his trouble. There are no Indian actors, he declares, therefore he dons red-face and buckskins to play the role of Wahnotee, a Native American depicted in full-bore stereotype, but pivotal to the turns of the plot. That leaves Boucicault's assistant—or intern, depending on which century we are in—to play the role of the male black slaves, old Henry and his young grandson Paul.

As the assistant is played by a Latino actor, we now have a black actor in white face, a white actor in red face, and a Hispanic actor in black face. The stage is set for the wild ride that follows. Jacob-Jenkins lifts the basic plot of Boucicault's story clear off the ground and lands it in the 21st century, just as a cyclone lifted Dorothy Gale's house and landed it in Oz. Among themselves, the slaves at Terrebonne—doing whatever it takes to survive—speak in today's vernacular, with a contemporarily jaded approach to the troubles other people—slaves or white folks—get themselves in to.

Minnie and Dido are hilarious sorting out the comings and goings of other slaves at Terrebonne with 2015 attitude and inflection—"He was sold? Damn, I didn't know that, no wonder I ain't seen him around!"—making the pain of their circumstance all the more poignant by treating it as so much idle gossip. It is not shocking to them, it is their daily existence, they kibitz a bit about it, and then move on, which is the only choice life gives them.

The outcome of An Octoroon follows the outcome of The Octoroon pretty closely, yet by depicting the conventions of slavery and the plantation system with twenty-first century sensibilities, even the creaky and predictable plot elements take us by surprise. Every turn of the plot delights even as it stirs provocative questions. In the hands of director Nataki Garrett, the work flows quite naturally between the past, the present, and the surreal space between, without ever leaving the audience behind.

Garrett has a splendid cast to work with. William Hodgson, who introduces himself as a black playwright, is BJJ, a likeable and quit witted, and then transforms himself into the two sides of the white spectrum found in melodrama, the pure and virtuous hero (George) and the dastardly villain (McClosky), adeptly shifting back and forth, sometimes just by removing or putting on a hat. In the inevitable scene where the two confront each other, Hodgson single-handedly and hilariously plays both combatants—as always, Annie Enneking's fight choreography is unsurpassed.

Jon Andrew Hegge plays the playwright Boucicault who becomes the Indian Wahnotee, finding the inner life in both men. Jamila Anderson as Dido and Jasmine Hughes as Minnie accomplish the difficult task of mining the humor in the misery of their servitude. Jane Froiland as Dora, the white southern Belle competing for George Peyton's affection, is all flutter and high-pitched giggle, arrogant in the way her society expects her to be. Megan Burns as Zoe, the octoroon, plays her with calm and dignity, guarding her feelings, yet as they take hold, she used them as her guide toward what she believes to be the right course of action. Ricardo Vazquez gets to use his dance moves when, as Old Henry, he breaks into a tap dance number, the better to market himself at the slave auction.

The design work is terrific. The costumes are exactly what one imagines actors in the mid or late 1800s would wear to represent antebellum style—the right look, but with a bit of exaggeration just to make sure. The setting has the feel of an old Mississippi riverboat stage, with sets of French doors for characters to come, go, and eavesdrop behind. At the center, picturesque backdrops are unrolled to depict Belle Meade, the riverfront levee and the slave quarters. A wonderfully costumed Br'er Rabbit (from the Southern folktales attributed to Uncle Remus, a former slave) appears between scenes to fussily move props and roll down the next backdrop, shaking his head and looking out at the audience as if challenging us to explain the peculiar divisions men have made among themselves. A keyboardist provides a continuous musical background that conjures up the sentiment of the old South, occasionally throwing in a contemporary beat. Sound and lighting design further enhances the production.

This is a wonderful play, surprisingly funny—even uproarious—that uses the very distasteful past to prompt questions about where we are today as a society. It certainly calls into question the notion that we have attained a "post-racial" status. Boucicault wrote The Octoroon using the definite article the to depict a specific character in particular circumstances. Jacob-Jenkins has broadened the scope with An Octoroon, using the indefinite article an. This story is one among many, countless untold tales of women and men whose lives are rent asunder by the color of their ancestors' skin. In An Octoroon, all the old fuss is made to seem absurd. As we laugh at that absurdity, though, we are given a lens to help us see the social inheritance those times have laden upon our twenty-first century lives.

An additional note: Kudos to Mixed Blood Theatre on the renovations to their historic 19th century former fire station-turned-theater, with expanded lobby and rest room facilities to enhance the theater-going experience.

An Octoroon continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through November 15, 2015. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20 for reserved seats; Radical Hospitality seats are free at the door prior to performances. For tickets call 612-338-6331 or go to mixedblood.com.

Writer: Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins; Director: Nataki Garrett; Composer: Eric Mayson; Set Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Montana Johnson; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Raul Ramos; Technical Director: Elliot Hays.

Cast: Jamila Anderson (Dido), Megan Burns (Zoe), Jane Froiland (Dora), Jon Andrew Hegge (Playwright), Chaz Hodges (Grace), William Hodgson (BJJ), Jasmine Hughes (Minnie), Gregory Parks (Br'er Rabbit), Ricardo Vazquez (Assistant).


- Arthur Dorman


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