Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

An Octoroon
Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's review of Two Trains Running


James Ijames and Campbell O'Hare
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
"Hi everyone" the man standing at the lip of the stage in his underwear greets the audience. "I am a black playwright." The audience begins to hoot, holler, and applaud, seemingly oblivious that this is as much a j'accuse as a statement of fact. The awareness of definition and categorization established in the first moments of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' acclaimed An Octoroon, currently receiving its area premiere at Wilma Theater under the direction of Joanna Settle, will permeate the rest of the play, forcing the actors and the audience to weigh not only how they address questions of race, but what they expect from theater.

The man we first meet is the playwright's avatar, called BJJ (James Ijames). When moments later his therapist asks him what playwrights he admires—probably expecting to hear a name like August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks—BJJ name-drops Dion Boucicault (1820-1890), a mostly forgotten dramatist renowned for melodrama. In his time, Boucicault was best known for his anti-slavery play The Octoroon, which some say rivaled Uncle Tom's Cabin in popularity among the abolitionist set.

Dying for inspiration, BJJ decides to adapt The Octoroon as a statement on contemporary attitudes toward race. He hits a roadblock, however, when all of his white collaborators quit the production—or does he? As the production moves from the meta-theatrical framing device to a performance of the play within a play, race is both erased and complicated. BJJ puts on whiteface to play the dashing hero. An Asian actor (the superb Justin Jain) wrestles with magical negro stereotypes in blackface. A white actor (Wilma regular Ed Swidey)—who also functions as Boucicault's stand-in, imploring the audience for forgetting him in their quest to create more veristic theater—dons redface and explores American Indian stereotypes that are still little understood. A pair of house slaves (Taysha Canales and Jaylene Clark Owens, standouts both) function as a Greek chorus of sorts.

The play's title character is Zoe (Campbell O'Hare), a beautiful free woman who is "cursed by the one drop of blood in eight that bears the mark of Cain." The kindly plantation master George (played by Ijames) loves her and will marry her despite the knowledge of her racial impurity, but as an exemplar of the tragic mulatta stereotype, she is destined to meet a pitiful end. O'Hare's performance is simply extraordinary—it functions both as a perfect display of melodramatic acting tropes and a wily deconstruction of them. She and Ijames, equally at home as the neurotic BJJ and as the comically ardent romantic lead, are so convincing that one can easily feel themselves as lost in the sentimental plot as its antebellum audience must have been.

But Jacobs-Jenkins has no interest in passive entertainment, and neither does Settle, whose production is surely the crown jewel of the Philadelphia theater season. Like the play, the production elements, which include an on-stage band that serves up a wonderfully anachronistic blend of music, are as entertaining as they are jarring. And also like the play, they push the audience to the brink of catharsis before deliberately stopping short. The theater can be a place for messy explorations of complicated topics, Jacobs-Jenkins and Settle seem to say. And why shouldn't they be?

An Octoroon continues at Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia) through Sunday, April 10, 2016. Tickets ($10-25) can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org, by phone (215-546-7824), or in person at the box office (Monday, 10:30-6; Tuesday-Thursday, 10:30-7; Friday-Saturday, 12-7:30; Sunday, 12-7).


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