Only a Fraction of an Idea: ‘An Octoroon’ at Berkeley Rep

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Octoroon, An at Berkeley Rep poster

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love

As I took my seat in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Stage, the first thing I noticed was that I was only one-of-a-handful of Black faces in the audience. It’s something I’m quite used to, so I didn’t dwell on it, no matter how much it disappoints me. What was different this time was that during the performance I found myself scanning the faces of the audience for reactions to the spectacle we were watching. Not to see if they were shocked, not to see if they were angry, but to see if anyone else was as bored as I was.

Granted, there was at least one moment when the majority of the audience was shocked: it was near the beginning, when BJJ (avatar of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, played by Lance Gardner) sits at a make-up table to apply “whiteface” (and I really mean white) as Menace Clan’s “Kill Whitey” blasts over the theatre speakers. As a Black man myself, I’ve always gotten a wonderfully Schadenfreude-esque glee from watching supposedly-enlightened White people squirm when suddenly confronted by art based on Black rage. This scene is soon followed by one of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault at the table applying redface as Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” plays.

This prologue hints at a production we audience members will never see: one that we were promised but never got; one that turns the damaging practices Vaudevillian blackface and cultural appropriate on their heads as it takes them to task; one that’s capable of taking a “classic” work – a work supposedly sympathetic toward an oppressed people – viewing it through a contemporary lense, and revealing its inherent hypocrisies. That’s what Jacobs-Jenkins promises to do with An Octoroon, his “post-modern” take on Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, but the contemporary playwright (a Black man) is unable to fulfill his part of the bargain.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still relevant: the reason I love Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder’s infamous scathing review (and subsequent follow-up comments) of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is because MacGruder knows that it isn’t enough to simply show that you’ve heard of a topic, if you’re going to say something about it you have to say something important. Like Lee with Bamboozled, Jacobs-Jenkins is all too eager to pat himself on the back for An Octoroon “daring” to show blackface in a contemporary setting, but doesn’t have enough awareness to fully explore its modern equivalents. And that’s too bad, because the few-and-far-between moments when the play does just that, it shows sparks of pure brilliance.

We begin with no stage. On walks BJJ, adorned in nothing but his undergarments. He tells us why he’s frustrated with what being “a Black playwright” means to White people. Even his White shrink is startled by the idea that he’d have such thoughts. In an attempt to explore the idea of where someone like him fits into his chosen art form, he decides to put on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, with BJJ performing both of the male leads in full whiteface. He’s assisted in his endeavor by Boucicault himself, suddenly appearing in our time and acting in full redface.

As a stage suddenly descends and a backdrop appears, the older play is staged with all of its classic accoutrement, including scenery-chewing performances and live accompaniment by a pianist dressed as Br’er Rabbit. A White man’s play about Black people restaged by a Black playwright. And down the rabbit hole we go…

As I mentioned in my recent review of FaultLine’s How to be A White Man, there are some genuinely good ideas to be found, but the whole thing lacks focus. Both productions – both scripts – are so eager to shout to the rooftops that they don’t care if they’re understood; they just throw things at the wall to see if they stick. For Luna Malbroux, that meant putting on a show that would have done better in sketch form, but falls apart when strung together with a flimsy narrative. For Jacobs-Jenkins, it means expecting the audience to laugh at jokes only he thinks are funny. Yes, the presentation style of old plays was overwrought, that’s why having to sit through it for 2 ½ interminable hours is an unbearable experience. The style is amusing for a few minutes, annoying after half-an-hour, and outright unbearable at the play’s current running length. And the entire time, we’re expected to be rolling in the aisles.

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And what’s really sad is that there are some really funny moments sprinkled in. Actors Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, and Afua Busia play slaves in the play-within-the-play (the latter two playing house slaves) and they all break from the other cast members by speaking in a contemporary “Ooh, girl…” vernacular (the term “on the DL” is thrown in at one point). It’s an hilarious meta POV that recalls Alice Randall’s novel The Wind Done Gone in its examination of Boucicault’s text, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the way it looks at the medium of theatre. Along with the opening prologue, any scene featuring any combination of these ladies is a highlight of the production and one that makes Jacobs-Jenkins’ thesis all the more clear. These scenes provide a funny and pointed commentary on race and theatre that works in its execution. This is what the entire production should have been.

But the script as a whole doesn’t have that sort of respect for the audience, so it resorts to one-of-two lazy fallbacks. The first involves playing Boucicault’s version so broadly that the audience is expected to laugh because “Look how silly people acted back then!” The second involves beating the audience over the head with poorly-articulated commentary, particularly during the epilogue. Knowing the play is already running long, the character BJJ breaks the fourth wall and explains the final act to us, saying that such plot twists would have been shocking to 1859 audiences, but obviously won’t to we 21st Century folk. So to fill the “shock” quote, he has all of the lights go out so that he can project the image of Lawrence Beitler’s 1930 lynching photo. It’s supposed to rattle the audience and force them confront the results of venomous racism, like that shown in Boucicault’s play; instead, it elicits indifferent shrugs. I never thought I’d ever come to the point in my life where I’d be too fucking bored by pretentious rambling to have any reaction to sight of two dead young Black men.

Though I could spend all day picking apart the abundant flaws of Jacobs-Jenkins’ script – like the fact that after the aforementioned lynch-photo scene, the play adds one more ridiculously-long scene set on the swamp – I’ll try to see at least one bright side by shining a light on the cast and crew. With nothing to say about Lance Gardner’s over-the-top play-within-a-play performance, I can at least say that he bring genuine heart and a sharp wit to the prologue scene as “BJJ”. They make you feel bad that you don’t see BJJ again until the end. Ray Porter and Amir Talai’s equally over-the-top showings as Boucicault and his blackfaced-co-star/intern (respectively) make it impossible to get any reading on what actual talents these two men have. Jennifer Regan at least seems to show some well-honed comedic timing, and Lisa Quoresimo’s piano-playing is great in its authenticity.

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I’m pleased to say that the best members of the cast were the four Black women. I’ve already mentioned the scene-stealing hilarity of Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, and Afua Busia – please give these sistas their own show, or just rewrite this one to be all about them – but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sydney Morton as Zoe, the eponymous “octoroon”. First off, good work on the part of Berkeley Rep for actually casting a bi-racial actress rather than just casting some White girl with a tan (though the possible commentary of that would have been interesting). Secondly, the best part of Morton’s performance is that she plays it completely straight; as if she was the only cast member not told to over-exaggerate or play Zoe absurdly big. Yes, it clashes with the absurdity going on around her, but it also makes her irresistible to watch whenever she’s on stage. She makes Zoe sincerely empathetic, and it was a good idea director Eric Ting encouraged the performance that way.

As expected, all the Berkeley Rep talent at Ting’s disposal is top-notch. The first to be noticed is the lighting design of Jiyoun Chang. The play begins with the house lights on, before slowly dimming until we get to the harsh lights of Boucicault’s show. Montana Blanco’s costumes are wonderfully details period pieces that make one admire the sort of care that used to go into fashion more than a century ago. Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s work is nothing short of amazing: to go from the blank stage to a stage that “crashes” down to the cotton-ball-strewn “mess” that it eventually becomes, all of it works (and I didn’t miss details like the new backdrop or the lowered chandeliers either). Sound designer Jake Rodriguez’s contributions would seem to be least when one considers Quoresimo’s on-stage piano work, but then comes the final scene. As absurdly long as it was, the subtle lights, ambient sounds, and incredible set design of that scene are a testament to the talents of all involved.

March of this year, I assisted with a few of the technical aspects of this year’s TBAcon. Of particular note was when I assisted with a special performance of Rotimi Agbabiaka’s Type/Cast. Like An Octoroon, Type/Cast’s final scene include the projection of a quick lesson on the ugly side of the treatment of Black people in the United States. Type/Cast’s approach to this differs in two distinct ways: 1 – rather than an image of Black men being lynched, it’s a text-only PowerPoint presentation accompanied with Grace Jones music; 2 – it’s able to better get across with subtlety what An Octoroon fails to do with in-you-face sensationalism.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play reminds me of a poorly-written university thesis paper: clearly a lot of research was done, but the author seemed more concerned with his own self-importance that he seemed to give no regard to making his work legible to the professor who would have to read it. It’s the sort of work that reeks of a college student who’s two weeks into a 101 class and thinks they should be made head of the department. It’s the sort of thing you write two hours before you hand it in, rather than take the entire assigned weekend to edit and refine.

It’s times like these when I’m reminded why I rate art on a letter-grade system.

GRADE:                D

An Octoroon is scheduled to run until the 23rd of July at The Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours, including a 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.