The pernicious stereotypes are flying fast and furious at a recent rehearsal of “An Octoroon” inside a studio at the Boston Center for the Arts. Director Summer L. Williams is navigating her Company One cast through the minefield of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s button-pushing melodrama, in which noxious caricatures from the antebellum South come queasily to life, including an overdramatic plantation queen, a subservient Uncle Tom-like house slave, a dim-witted young “picaninny” speaking in a thick patois, and an inebriated Native American in full headdress.
The actors are laying it on thick, playing up the overwrought emotions, dramatic revelations, and hidden secrets to the cockamamie hilt. A few of the actors watching from the sidelines chuckle at the demented theatrics.
“The language is so awful, but it’s kind of hilarious,” Williams says during a chat before rehearsal. “You’re laughing at someone calling someone else something that is horrendous. You may find yourself laughing, and you’re instantly kind of comfortable with it. But why are you comfortable with it?”
Jacobs-Jenkins’s play, which Company One and ArtsEmerson are producing at the Paramount Center beginning Friday, is a head-spinning riff on Dion Boucicoult’s 1859 melodrama about the forbidden interracial love between a high-minded Louisiana plantation heir and an octoroon slave in the pre-Civil War South. (“Octoroon” refers to a person of mixed-race who has one-eighth “black blood.”)
Boucicoult’s politically charged play, written in response to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” may have been a hit on Broadway, but it enflamed both abolitionists and pro-slavery factions alike. Similarly, Jacobs-Jenkins’s play was a flashpoint for controversy. As in Boucicoult’s original, the actors wear white, black, and red face paint to depict characters of other races. But while the original featured an all-white cast, Jacobs-Jenkins’s version calls for a mix of races.
In the Company One production, Brandon Green, an African-American actor, portrays both the white plantation owner and his scheming rival M’Closky, as well as BJJ, a black playwright that Jacobs-Jenkins employs as a meta-theatrical framing device for his adaptation. Brooks Reeves, a white actor, plays the Native American Wahnotee in redface, slave auctioneer LaFouche, and the Playwright (a stand-in for the Irish-Anglo Boucicoult). A South Asian actor, Harsh Gagoomal, puts on blackface to play two slave characters.
“Next week we’re going to put makeup on for the first time,” says Williams, “and the words that are coming out of those faces might take on a new meaning with that new look.”
Despite its potentially discomfiting subject matter, when “An Octoroon” first premiered at Soho Rep in New York in 2014 (followed by a run in Brooklyn last winter), it earned a host of critical hosannas. The play, along with Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2014 dysfunctional family drama “Appropriate” (produced at SpeakEasy Stage Company last fall) shared a prestigious Obie Award for Best New American Play.
The plot follows the contours of Boucicoult’s original play, which involves illicit love, a scheming, murderous villain, and the question of whether the Terrebone plantation can be saved from foreclosure. Dora, a bigoted Southern belle, yearns for the high-minded yet befuddled plantation heir George, who has fallen in love with Zoe, the illegitimate octoroon daughter of his late uncle.
Still, Jacobs-Jenkins radically mashes up Boucicoult’s story, characters, and vernacular with meta-theatrical versions of both playwrights and several new characters, including house slaves Minnie and Dido, who speak in sassy contemporary slang. “I know we slaves and evurthang, but you are not your job,” Minnie says to Dido. “You gotta take time out of your day to live life for you.”
While “An Octoroon” can be wildly absurd and subversively funny in its stylized conceit, it’s also deeply unsettling in how it layers questions about racial constructs and identity — using the masks of theater — onto the melodramatic machinations of Boucicoult’s play.
“There is a line in the play: ‘Shall we have one law for the redskin and another for the white?’” Williams says. “The first time I read that, which is a black man in white face saying that about a white man in red face, I was astounded by all of the layers and how deeply connected this play is to the state of what it means to be living in America now.”
Says Reeves, “What does that mean when we change our racial coding? The fact that we re-enact this antiquated tradition of putting on different racial mantles, it really exposes the artifice of those distinctions.”
Ensconced inside a coffee shop near his apartment in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Jacobs-Jenkins, 31, says that he first became obsessed with Boucicoult’s “The Octoroon” after reading it in grad school at NYU. It stuck with him for four or five years before he decided “I did really just want to see a production of it. That was the impulse.”
“When I began the adaptation, I was very critical of Boucicoult’s play in a way that I think we’re taught to be — that it’s problematic. The depiction of slaves, it’s offensive. That’s what everyone wants to say about it. But then, despite its being offensive, it’s an effective piece of theater. I guess that contradiction was interesting to me,” says Jacobs-Jenkins, who can veer from offering an incisive critique of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” to animatedly dissecting the storytelling whiplashes of the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder.”
When it comes to discussions of race, Jacobs-Jenkins says, “How do we refresh our language? Why do we still use like a 150-year-old classification system to talk about people? It’s so weird! We still call people black and white?”
While Zoe’s plight may have been most important to Boucicoult, it’s Minnie and Dido who emerge as the heart of what’s at stake in “An Octoroon.”
“I am occasionally frightened by how accessible some of this is for me. Some of it feels like things that my great-grandmother went through when she was sharecropping in Alabama,” says Elle Borders, who plays Minnie. “I don’t allow myself to think about it until we have moments like the slave auction, where there are human lives being put on a block to be sold. To have to watch that and take part in the creation of it is sometimes very difficult.”
For Obehi Janice, who plays Dido, Jacobs-Jenkins clearly believes that Boucicoult’s play is more relevant to our times than it may appear at first. “I mean, why are people still laughing at jokes that they laughed at back in 1859?” she says. “Yes ‘An Octoroon’ is an adaptation, but he’s making a point about the ickiness and messiness of our culture. It’s almost like giving us a new lens to see stuff that’s been going on for years.”
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Summer L. Williams. Presented by Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston, Jan. 29-Feb. 27. Tickets: $25-$35, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@