Performance

Laughing (and Crying, and Laughing Again) About Slavery

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Austin Smith in Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Soho Rep’s ‘An Octoroon,’ directed by Sarah Benson (all photos by Gerry Goodstein)

Aside from innovative and well-executed visual effects, what makes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play An Octoroon so remarkable is the unceasing state of anxiety in which you’re held from start to finish. And there you remain, on the brink of hilarity, uncertain whether you should be laughing at all.

In the black box–like Polonsky Shakespeare Center the laughter was at times uproarious and at other times barely audible, but always varied in length, left to each audience member to negotiate for him or herself, in this exploration of race and identity where the joke begins and justly ends.

In this regard, as a black writer in a predominantly white crowd, I felt, for a change, like I was quite possibly one of the least self-conscious people in the audience. After all, laughing at the absurdity of race politics and white oppression remains a celebrated African American tradition from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle. It is, in my experience, as natural a cultural response to tragedy as tears.

Indeed, Jacobs-Jenkins’s comedic approach to race and identity is energizing at a time when we’ve been soberly appraising the value of black lives on social media, and when the reality of racism in America has been anything but funny.

From the play’s beginning the dilemma of the black artist, comedian, and storyteller is central. BJJ, a black man dressed down to his underwear, opens the play acknowledging, “Hi everyone. I’m a black playwright. I don’t know exactly what that means,” as he sits down to his vanity and applies thick white makeup with Drake blaring over the speakers.

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Austin Smith and Amber Gray in ‘An Octoroon’

“Cause I’m the nigga, the nigga nigga,” Drake croons, summoning the performance of race that defines so much of the play, the black experience and the history of black entertainment. The same pathological minstrelsy plays out when the ethnically diverse cast literally performs race by donning black, white, and red face.

In one example, in the same opening act, Haynes Thigpen (white) — who plays the original Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault, the author of the 1859 play on which An Octoroon is loosely based — drunkenly applies red face paint and slips into an Indian headdress. Wielding a tomahawk, he dances with abandon under strobe lights to booming pop music. Under Sarah Benson’s direction, this oddly poetic image brings the audience face to face with America’s romance with racist iconography.

We are then drawn out of this realm of ideas and thrust into the actual narrative when the wall that has, until now, served as the backdrop for this prologue literally falls, sending a whoosh and thrill through the crowd.

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Amber Gray in ‘An Octoroon’

The setting is now a bright plantation porch where two slave women sweep errant cotton balls. They speak in a rhythm indistinguishable from that of two around-the-way-girls gabbing on the subway, rendering their actual situation as slaves incidental. In a later scene between the same two women, Dido and Minnie, played by Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa, Dido complains about the hardships of their “employment” to which Minnie unironically responds, “You can’t be bringing your work home with you.”

The actual plot of An Octoroon serves as more of a vehicle for Jacob-Jenkins’s thematic interests, but is best described as a classic (read: over-the-top) melodrama that turns on the dissolution of a plantation estate called Terrebonne. The heir to Terrebonne, George, played with perfect insolence and verisimilitude by Austin Smith who also plays BJJ and the dastardly M’Closky, returns from life abroad and attempts to save the plantation.

M’Closky, a greedy mustachioed fiend, attempts to usurp George and take possession of Terrebonne. He concocts a convoluted scheme to have the estate foreclosed and all of its property put to auction. This includes the beautiful octoroon slave girl, Zoe, with whom George of course falls in love, played throughout with a fatigue-inducing earnestness by Amber Gray.

Eventually M’Closky’s plot unravels, Terrebonne is returned to its rightful owner and the tragic mulatto girl, Zoe, in the fashion of all tragic mulatto girls in American literature, commits suicide. No surprises here.

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Mary Wiseman and Austin Smith in ‘An Octoroon’

Mary Wiseman, who nearly walks away with the show in multiple scenes, deserves notable mention in her role as Dora, a spoiled white heiress and George’s “rightful” match in wealth and breeding. Demonstrating a wit for timing and delivery that sets Jacob-Jenkins’s funny and deeply intelligent script aloft, her airs, pseudo-French expressions, and expert mispronunciations manage, at one point, to make even this over-privileged white woman’s use of the “n-word” funny.

Just when we are having a great time, relating and savoring our shared disgrace, the lights are turned down low and we’re addressed by BJJ, Jacob-Jenkins’s composite. He explains he wanted to achieve something new with the fourth act — the act in a stage play that is the most complicated to construct in its joint need for climactic action and resolution.

When he exits, a black and white image of a real lynching with enthralled white gawkers at its margins is projected onto the stage, lit by stage lights that could be headlights on a lone, southern road. The white men’s faces are fixed in ribald smiles, some laughing, some pointing. And, in that moment we are them, the audience, juxtaposed, entertained by our own racism.

An Octoroon continues at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Downtown Brooklyn) through March 15.

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