- An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The house lights were still up when André Sills walked alone to downstage center, faced an audience of about 300, and greeted them with a wave. “Hi, everyone,” he said. Despite the fact that Sills was clad only in Speedo-style black underwear, most spectators responded with a friendly sounding “Hi.” At this moment, those who knew little about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon but had seen Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion at the nearby Court House Theatre might have thought that Sills was engaging them in an equally lighthearted evening of what the cast of that show called “two-way theatre”—an occasion for performer/audience interaction, post-show conversation, and reflection. He was not. While some moments in An Octoroon were funnier than anything in Androcles, Jacobs-Jenkins’s play demanded a more intense engagement—intellectual and visceral at once—than many were prepared to sustain.
Indeed, on the night I attended, early in its run, a substantial number of spectators walked out at intermission. That is a good thing, I believe, because what followed Sills’s greeting was more aesthetically and politically challenging than most of what the Shaw Festival staged that season, including artistic director Tim Carroll’s fine production of Saint Joan. Because I had seen Sarah Benson’s acclaimed Soho Rep production of An Octoroon during its 2015 run at Theatre for a New Audience and taught Jacobs-Jenkins’s script to majority-white classes, I expected the play to provoke discomfort in festival audiences. In fact, I hoped Peter Hinton’s production would do at least that much. Two-way theatre can and should entertain its audiences, but a Shaw Festival worthy of its name must not pull its punches. The young Bertolt Brecht gave “three cheers for Shaw,” not because Shaw was the kind of socialist that Brecht admired (he was not), but because he thought of the older playwright as an intellectual “terrorist”: one who placed politically unstable compounds within familiar dramatic structures, then detonated them with a smile on his face.
The volatile elements of An Octoroon became apparent quickly enough. BJJ, one of three characters played by Sills and an obvious avatar for Jacobs-Jenkins, followed up his pleasant greeting with the lines, “I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m here to tell you a story.” BJJ’s monologue—which relates a disastrous attempt to ameliorate what his therapist calls “low-grade depression” by staging Dion Boucicault’s American plantation melodrama The Octoroon (1859)—then morphs into a shouting match with “The Playwright,” a resurrected, drunken, [End Page 555] and profanity-prone version of Boucicault himself (Patrick McManus). That the Playwright’s inebriation seems to be a result of BJJ’s highly theatrical onstage drinking—Sills struck a deep lunge, flourished his arms, and chugged an entire bottle—is one of several early indications that the former is also an avatar of the latter. The ensuing verbal bout between the Playwright and BJJ, consisting as it does of screamed variations on the phrase “fuck you,” no doubt surprised longtime festival patrons. Anyone attending a show with Shaw’s name attached to it, in any capacity whatsoever, should be looking for something more bracing than what Brecht called “culinary theatre.” A bracing experience is what Hinton’s Canadian premiere of An Octoroon gave them—ready or not.
During the prologue alone, spectators watched Sills apply whiteface makeup and a blond wig, preparing BJJ to perform the “white guy” parts he says white actors would not do because they’re wary of playing overt racists. Aided by an Assistant, the Playwright applied redface, readying himself to play the stereotypically rum-loving noble savage Wahnotee, as Boucicault did in his own production. Meanwhile, the Assistant, whom the script states is preferably played by a Native American, applies blackface for his roles as the enslaved Pete and Paul. Throughout this process, first BJJ and...