By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Okay, let me try to explain this.
One of the most famous playwrights in the 19th century was an Irish writer/actor named Dion Boucicault. You wouldn’t know any of his stuff now, but in his day his work was performed all around the world.
In 1859 he opened in New York with his melodramatic potboiler, The Octoroon. (In case you’re not familiar with the word it referred to a person with one great-grandparent who was of African birth or descent.) It was, supposedly, the first play written by a white person to treat the feelings and destiny of black people seriously … and it was hugely successful. The story is about a white man who falls in love with a woman (the eponymous character.) Their love can never be – it was illegal for one thing – and like any melodrama it’s all kissable heroines and hissable villains and no end of eye-rolling plot twists and events. The play even pleads for tolerance for its Native American character!
An Octoroon continues through Feb 24. New Hazlett Theater, North Side. www.kinetictheatre.org. 1-888-718-4253.
It’s important to realize, however, that while it may have been considered forward-thinking in its time, it’s time was 1859 and its inhumanely racist when you read it today. Even more so realizing all those the black characters in all those productions where only ever played by white actors in blackface.
Now jump cut to 2014 and say hello to playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. As a theater artist and a black man he is both intrigued and repulsed by The Octoroon and, apparently, couldn’t shake it. Race, representation, reality, then vs. now, identity and power … it all spun around in his head and in hopes of controlling it he wrote An Octoroon – notice the indefinite article – now receiving it’s Pittsburgh premiere from Kinetic Theater Company.
It’s a scathing satire using the Boucicault original as a jumping off point for Jacobs-Jenkins to say … actually I’m not even going to presume to pretend I know everything he wants to say. Just know it’s vast, fiercely intelligent and gloriously theatrical.
Part of the genius of An Octoroon is that you can never be sure of anything you’re seeing. The play begins by telling you it’s a lie, but then implies the claim it’s a lie is, itself, the lie. A man opens the event as a character called “BJJ” (the actor is Ananias J. Dixon in a performance of scalding intensity and infinite detail.) We learn about Boucicault’s play, BJJ’s relation to it, his general thoughts about theater and race and his own terrors.
He’s joined by a white actor (a commanding and shape-shifting Martin Giles) as the Boucicault doppelgänger. The two interact but eventually this man is revealed to be backstage at a theater getting ready to appear in a play with the help of his Assistant (Parag S. Gohel doing mammoth work.)
Eventually we come to understand that all three men, as well as the rest of the company, are going to perform The Octoroon but as contextualized by Jacob-Jenkins and seen through a contemporary lens. The first hint of Jacob-Jenkins’ brilliance and extraordinary sense of theater is when the three start applying makeup for the play-within-the-play and we watch a black man using white face paint, a white man using red face paint and a man of Asian heritage using black face paint. It literally took my breath away.
No wonder he was awarded the MacArthur Genius grant in 2016.
So we’re off. It’s absolutely dizzying as Jacob-Jenkins weaves in and out of the Boucicault original commentating, satirizing, ripping apart and even elevating the source material. One of his most audacious moves is taking two small roles from original, slave women Dido and Minerva, and while keeping them in 1859 gives them a contemporary sensibility commenting on and demonstrating the internalization of racism. And the fact that Melessie Clark and Kelsey Robison, joined by Dominique Brook, are side-splittingly funny in the roles, make their moments even stronger.
Speaking of funny – one of the joys of the Kinetic production under Andrew Paul’s fleet direction is the fun they have lampooning 19th century theater and the presentational acting style of the period … and no one’s having more fun that Jenny Malarkey as an 1800’s ham actress playing an even cheesier character. It’s left to Sarah Hollis, in the title role, to draw out the sadness and aching despair hidden underneath all these theatrical hijinks, which she does … and then some.
A truly remarkable evening of theater.