An Octoroon

Jacob Richardson | 23/09/2017

There’s a moment of pitch darkness in An Octoroon, where the lights (even the exit lights) shut down and you’re left in a gaping black void pierced by negative sound. It’s a shock to the senses; a wake-up call if you will. It’s ironic that it is in the midnight darkness, a state of pure visual deprivation most often associated with being asleep, that you will finally be woken from the mind-numbing stupor this otherwise utterly lacking production has cast you in.

An Octoroon follows a struggling black playwright, BJJ (Colin Smith), who stages an updated production of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon. Met with Boucicault himself, the two regularly jump out of the narrative to discuss elements of the play; the portrayal of race, the playwright’s own insecurities or the effectiveness of the climax.

 

At the beginning of An Octoroon, BJJ (Colin Smith) laments his therapist’s repeated attempts to classify him as a ‘black playwright’, a man for whom everything he writes, even a tale of talking farm animals, must necessarily be about the black experience. It’s an interesting exploration of what must be a frustrating trend in today’s industry, but much like the myriad of interesting plot threads picked up in the play, it is dropped - not only to be never discussed again, but in fact to be controverted by the remaining minutes in this 100 minute long play.

 

One such contradiction is in the lament from BJJ about the difficulty in casting white slavers. He mentions how no white actor wants to play a slaver without hope of redemption in the form of a personal monologue describing how he truly cares about his subjugates. Again, this is an interesting point, and excites you for the possibility of this version of The Octoroon - one where we get a true experience of slavery. Instead, playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins and director Nakiah Lui give us yet another white saviour. George, the white slaver who has recently arrived in Australia to a family property, after a stint in Paris, is the white saviour personified, and it is such a shame. Indeed, this early assertion that this performance won’t play into those traditional narrative arcs is not only subverted by main characters, but even by comedic “cameos” from modern day celebrities, with a white Russell Crowe saving a number of slaves from the pain of being bought by the nefarious McClosky.

 

Narratively, An Octoroon is derivative in the extreme, in particular during the non-Brechtian elements of the production. When we are in the narrative, following George and McClosky’s battle of wills, the broad brush plot strokes are so tired as to be ham-fisted. The production certainly improves when it switches to direct address, during the prologue or during the hilariously staged act transitions. Yet even still, this production of Brandon Jacobs-Jensen’s work still feels forced. Maybe it is Lui’s recontextualisation to an Australian setting, the “emotional overwhelming” of Smith in the fourth act, or the excessive use of offense and provocation. In one of his direct addresses, BJJ describes theatre as the art of making the audience feel something, and while this may well be true, An Octoroon too often falls back on easy gut punches - the use of racist slang, black face, slavery personification. It’s cheap, and the play suffers for it.

 

There are some redeeming qualities. Act 4 returns to the Prologue’s direct address performance style, and is all the better for it. The black-out period is truly affecting, and Elaine Crombie as Minnie is an utter delight to watch - she’s funny, engaging and a perfect method of recontextualising the themes in a modern framework.

Conclusion

An Octoroon is an egregious display of everything wrong with modern theatre. It is an incoherent, abhorrent and aggressively distasteful mess, but it’s most telling transgression is in it's tired banality.