As artists of color, we are accustomed to being categorized according to our perceived race. We’re not just artists, we’re Asian Actors, or Latinx Directors, or Black Playwrights. But what does it mean to be an “(insert ethnicity here) Artist” and will we ever be able to create work without everything being tied back to our race?
This is the question BJJ (Lance Gardener) asks when he walks onto a bare stage at the top of An Octoroon. He is a Black Playwright. It doesn’t matter what he writes about, theaters and their audiences will always bring it back to race. So, he tells us, he has adapted an old, once wildly popular melodrama, which, in turn, had been adapted by a white, Irish playwright from a novel. And he will be playing the lead role. In whiteface.
At its most basic, the story An Octoroon is telling is about a Louisiana plantation on the brink of bankruptcy and the lives of those affected: George (also Lance Gardner), the heir apparent who has just returned from Europe, Dora (Jennifer Reagan), the wealthy Southern belle who is in love with him, Zoe (Sydney Morton), an octoroon, with whom he falls in love, the dastardly M’Closky (also Lance Gardner), the man who is responsible for the downfall of the plantation and now plans to buy it, and the plantation’s slaves: Dido (Jasmine Bracey), Minnie (Afi Bijou), Grace (Afua Busia), and Pete (Amir Talai). Underscoring the melodrama is a pianist, dressed as Br’er Rabbit (Lisa Quoresimo).
Although melodrama has gone out of style in the theater world, it turns out it’s the perfect style for a critique on race in theater that is really a commentary on race in contemporary America. The exaggerated characters and showy acting are incredibly funny, but there are moments the facade drops and we see the real emotion behind the over-the-top performances. It is these moments where the play really hits home.
Of course a play is only as good as those that bring the script to life, so director Eric Ting, the cast, and the designers deserve as much credit for this brilliant production as playwright Brandon Jacob-Jenkins. The actors play their assigned tropes with relish, from the Mammy, to the Noble Savage, to the Tragic Mulatto. They are aided by a beautifully designed set that gets more complex as the play goes on.
This review could be three pages long, that’s how many layers there are to this production, so I’ll keep it short. Go see this play. No really, if you only spend money on one show this year it should be this one. You won’t be disappointed.
Reasons To Go:
- #DiversityOnStage: two-thirds of the cast are actors of color
- #DiversityOnPage: obviously
- This is a unique and engaging take on race in theater and in America
- The cast is brilliant
- The set design and lighting are brilliant
- I loved the piano and Br’er Rabbit
Who Should Go: Everyone
- Read every essay and interview in the playbill. Some of the aspects of the play could be considered dated (not everyone knows what an octoroon is anymore), and the essay gives good background information about the original production and an audience of that time period
- Every performance has a post-show discussion
- Tuesday and Thursday shows have pre-show docent talks
- Special pricing for Under 30, seniors, students, and military
Themes: slavery, race, race-mixing, theater, melodrama
Warnings: offensive language, racial slurs, allusions to violence
Show Information: At Berkeley Rep, extended through July 29