'An Octoroon' review or 'What do you think about this exposure?'

An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
The Orange Tree Theatre, 24th May 2017

I’ve taken a little break from theatre recently but I was so happy to be back last night. Here is the place that offers you comfort and says – ‘We are Here’ – but also takes you by the shoulder, shakes and hurts you. Here is the place that says ‘I understand’ but also says: ‘You know nothing.’

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays do all of these things and then some. We should be seeing so much more of his plays over here and – finally – we are. This is the European premiere of his 2014 Obie-winner ‘An Octoroon’ and, next month, it’s ‘Gloria’ at Hampstead Theatre. Go. This man makes theatre and his audience buzz and smile, think and cry in all the ways that great theatre can.

‘An Octoroon’ is a reframing of Dion ‘London Assurance’ Boucicault’s ‘The Octoroon’, a fairly nutty 19th century melodrama set on a plantation in Louisiana. The central plot – about an idealistic plantation heir who falls in love with an Octoroon (someone who is 1/8 black) and royally fucks with the order of things to catastrophic effect – is pretty much intact. But there are some key differences: Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is framed by monologues from the playwright himself (sort of), in which he angrily denies that this is a play about race, whilst also expertly needling us – seeing what might hurt or unsettle, testing our hidden prejudices or lazy preconceptions. This is a play that constantly jabs its audience – daring us to take an easy way out or fall on a straight forward interpretation, whilst constantly challenging us to think harder and feel in more complicated and uneasy ways.

There are the incessant jab, jab, jabs – both from the actor who plays the playwright (the amazingly mercurial, fierce, gentle Ken Nwosu) and from the original playwright, a permanently sozzled Boucicault (Kevin Trainor – a comic gift). In another twist, most of the slave owners are played by ‘whited up’ black actors (all the white actors ‘quit’ when asked to play racists without any redeeming features), and there are also ‘blacked up’ (why am I putting these in parentheses?) slaves, an amazing ‘red-faced’ Indian – and even a little white baby with a great black splodge on his face. Skin colour has a huge role to play, and it is an extraordinarily slippery beast, confounding expectations, making us laugh when we might get serious (a ‘red’ face actor turns out to be sun burned) and always, always reminding us of the artifice that underpins all the performances on stage.

The central melodrama builds up a crazy heat of its own, whilst Branden Jacobs-Jenkins prods at us from the wings. Plantation owner Judge Peyton has died and his naïve nephew George (also played by Ken Nwosu) has come to take over the plantation – but he hadn’t bargained on falling in love with young Octoroon and part slave, part plantation boss Zoe (a beautifully gentle Iola Evans). Things get messy. Things get messier still when overseer and all-round bad egg M’Closky (also played by Nwosu – keep UP) arrives and resolves to make the plantation and Zoe his own. Pivotal letters are stolen, a black kid is killed, a single photo takes on monumental importance, love is declared, love is denied, slaves flee and slaves are captured, boats burn and a trial quickly descends into farce and then into something much darker and deeper, just when we’re laughing and easy.

It’s all a bit of a crazy, thrilling, knackering whirl – but there is no one better to direct a theatrical storm than Ned Bennet. He calms things just as the whole production risks spinning out of control – but only for a second, and then we’re off again once more. The scenes with playwright ‘BJJ’ are still and simple. The stage is bare and dressing room lights flicker around the edges of the stalls. Ken Nwosu stands almost naked before us and whispers about his anger, his ideas, his love and frustration for the theatre and his pre-ordained place within it. I am not willing to play a black playwright, insists this character ‘BJJ’, as a black man plays him on stage.

Flashes of innocence or horror blind us temporarily. Octoroon Zoe appears and a blazing spotlight roams and finds her, where she delicately sings. The stage effects play constantly with the idea of time and the fact that, though this story is old, it makes no less sense now captured inside modern trappings. An actor in a rabbit costume scampers across the stage and dares us to make sense of him. We remember BJJ’s sneering recollection about a literary manager who once insisted that his play about farm animals must, of course, be a reflection on African folktales. Extract easy meaning if you dare, twitches the rabbit as he glides right past us.

Just as we might lose ourselves in the ‘show’ – and stop questioning every last damn thing – another element in the production slides. Hell, at one point, the whole stage is torn apart and what was once steady ground becomes a ship, tossed about at sea – and possibly burned to ashes.

Ned Bennet and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins pause, too, during a quite brilliant trial scene in which, thanks to some ingenious casting, M’Closky plays both judge and jury. How’s that for a fierce little jab at justice? In Boucicault’s original play, a photograph plays a pivotal role in this final trial scene and is instrumental in bringing about justice. But ‘BJJ’ plays around with the original, and speaks to the audience as he goes: ‘Photos are not new anymore. What can we do that might still shock?’ A fancy projector is brought on stage and there is a lot of faff among the actors. It feels like we are building towards a crazy theatrical firework – and then the projector is switched on to reveal an old photo of a lynching. And the need for novelty disappears. And the need to create shock melts away. And instead we are forced to live with the reality, then and now, with nothing to hide behind.