Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins gives us something to think about in the opening moments of his play, An Octoroon, by Definition Theatre Company, directed by Chuck Smith. An actor (Breon Arzell) appears as BJJ and introduces himself as “a black playwright.” After a dialogue with his female therapist, in which he switches back and forth between characters in voice and gesture, he complains about the nature of being a black playwright. “I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America. I even tried writing a play about talking farm animals once—just to avoid talking about people” and he was accused of deconstructing African folk tales.
Jenkins is teasing us into thinking about race, identity and racism in the U.S., both the 19th and 21st century versions. An Octoroon is a close adaptation of an 1859 play by the Playwright (Christopher Sheard), who appears (in red long johns). For a while, the two are on stage together, trading insults. The Playwright is the 19th century sensation, Dion Boucicault, who wrote the melodrama, The Octoroon, which Jenkins is about to present in his own version. Both men put on makeup. BJJ white face and the Playwright redface to play a Native American character.
In Jenkins’ take on the 19th century melodrama, black actors wear whiteface and sometimes blackface. The characters who are part of the Peyton plantation family perform in 19th century garb and in melodramatic acting style, with exaggerated voice and gesture. The three female slaves in the kitchen discuss the Peyton family problems, speculate on slaves who ran away, and whether and to whom they’ll be sold. They speak in naturalistic style, almost contemporary language when they’re together, and in slave patois when they’re with the white folks. Minnie (Sydney Charles) and Dido (Maya Vinice Prentiss) are house slaves, while the very pregnant Grace (Tiffany Oglesby) is a field hand.
That’s how Jenkins brings us to his take on Boucicault’s 1859 play about the Terrebonne plantation in Louisiana, where the Peyton family is in financial trouble and may lose its property—real estate and slaves—to an evil overseer. That’s M’Closky, played by Arzell, who also plays the Peyton nephew, George, just returned from Paris. He switches easily back and forth between characters, with the use of a hat and quick transitions from elegant to uncouth.
The octoroon is the lovely Zoe (Ariel Richardson), the daughter of a quadroon slave and a Peyton, who died without formalizing Zoe’s freedom. Although George and Zoe would like to marry, they can’t because, as Zoe tells him, of the “blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black… That one drop poisons all the rest…. I’m an unclean thing—I’m an octoroon!”
The Peyton plantation has a savior, however, and George has a marital prospect. Dora (Carley Cornelius), a wealthy heiress, would love to marry him and spend her money on him. Will the plantation be saved? Will the slaves be sold? Will Zoe be sold? All these questions hinge on a photograph. Oh, I forgot to mention that George is a photographer, with a grand large 19th century view camera. In an act of camera ex machina, a photo is taken of M’Closky killing a young boy. (And George had invented a self-developing film.) This and other shocking events bring the play to its conclusion.
Director Check Smith manages all this drama and melodrama with his usual skill. His cast is excellent, with Arzell performing a tour de force as three characters. There’s also a mysterious character named Br’er Rabbit (Tyrone Phillips), who wears a hat with ears and performs small feats of magic with a finger snap.
Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is very spare and accomplishes what’s needed for the set to support the fine acting. A flat with a photograph of an old mansion tells us we’re on a plantation. Kristy Hall’s costumes for the 19th century women are beautiful and swishy.
In the dramatis personae listing in his script, Jenkins specifies the type of actor who should play each part. “Played by an African-American actor or a black actor. Played by a white actor or an actor who can pass as white. Played by an African-American actress, a black actress, or an actress of color.”
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius grant”) and a well-regarded young playwright. Recent productions of his plays in Chicago include Gloria this year at Goodman Theatre and Appropriate in 2013 at Victory Gardens. An Octoroon, Appropriate and Neighbors (2010) are Jenkins’ trilogy on racial issues.
An Octoroon by Definition Theatre Company runs 2 hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission. It continues at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through August 20. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Buy tickets for $15-40 online—or call 773-871-3000.