A revealing mashup of the present, past in ‘An Octoroon’
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Branden Jacobs-Jenkins appears to have little use for the constraints of minimalism.
An inventive young playwright with a highly developed sense of irony, Jacobs-Jenkins approaches the subject of race from unexpected and provocative angles. He throws a lot at — and asks a lot of — audiences. His determination to push the outside of the envelope, even at the risk of excess, was evident in "Neighbors,'' presented at Company One five years ago, and "Appropriate,'' seen last fall at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Now comes his arresting and conceptually audacious "An Octoroon," receiving its New England premiere in a co-production by Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson, directed by the ever-resourceful Summer L. Williams (who also helmed "Neighbors'').
Though "An Octoroon'' is flawed, overlong, and marred by stretches of tedium in its first half, the creative chances Jacobs-Jenkins takes do ultimately pay off. He's got a knack for enfolding dead-serious subject matter within outer layers of absurdity, and no one else is writing plays quite like him. If you see "An Octoroon,'' you're likely to find that it stays with you.
It's a radical reworking of "The Octoroon,'' an 1859 melodrama by the Ireland-born playwright Dion Boucicault about the taboo interracial love between George Peyton, a white plantation heir in Louisiana, and Zoe, the daughter of a slave and George's deceased uncle. (Historically, the word octoroon has referred to a person whose ancestry is one-eighth black.)
Though Jacobs-Jenkins follows his imagination where it takes him, he also tracks Boucicault's plot too extensively. "An Octoroon'' would benefit from a tightening of some self-indulgent sequences. But by the end you're struck by how adroitly Jacobs-Jenkins has employed the conventions of 19th-century melodrama in ways that make us think about historical depictions of race, about cultural representations of all kinds, and about the ways, subtle and not, that the past can leach into the present. When it comes to racial constructs, Jacobs-Jenkins wants us to think about how we think.
Per the playwright's instructions, George is portrayed by a black actor — in this production, the tireless and very impressive Brandon Green — in whiteface. Brooks Reeves, who is white, puts on red makeup to portray a Native American named Wahnotee, and Harsh Gagoomal, a South Asian actor, dons blackface to play an elderly slave named Pete and a young slave named Paul.
As Green applies the whiteface onstage, director Williams lingers on the scene, allowing us to ponder the implications of the transformation. Green also plays another white character, the villainous M'Closky, who has insidious designs on Zoe (Shawna M. James). In one of numerous meta-touches in a play that is partly about theater itself, Green portrays a third character: None other than Jacobs-Jenkins, identified as B.J.J.
Early on, there's an ingenious slapstick faceoff — borrowing from the famous mirror scene in the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup'' — between B.J.J. and an irate character identified as the Playwright (played by Reeves, excellent) who represents Boucicault. Their synchronized exchange of profanities deftly underscores the clash of eras and cultures and assumptions, as well as the questions about who controls the story, that undergird "An Octoroon.''
As the play unfolds, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps us off-balance is by juxtaposing the comically stylized with the unspeakable: references to babies being sold away from their mothers; an auction advertised with a sign proclaiming the sale of "Land, Negroes'' and "other property.'' Chilling images of lynchings further drive home the deadly toll of racism.
Bridgette Hayes portrays Dora, a Southern belle whose gimlet eye is fixed on George, and Amelia Lumpkin plays Grace, a pregnant slave. A surreal touch is added by Kadahj Bennett, beneath a mask, as a silently watchful Br'er Rabbit, perpetually hovering on the periphery of the action.
But it is two house slaves, Dido (a vivid Obehi Janice) and Minnie (Elle Borders) who are perhaps most vital to the interplay between then and now that animates "An Octoroon.'' Offering pungent commentary on the proceedings in deliberately anachronistic language, they seem to inhabit two worlds: 1859 and the present day. Fittingly, it is Dido and Minnie who are given the last, resonant word by Jacobs-Jenkins.
Play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Presented by Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson at Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center. Through Feb. 27. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org