An Octoroon in a White World

Berkeley Rep's play takes its title from The Octoroon, a 19th-century play about a person who is one-eighth Black.

Lance Gardner as BJJ in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne)

At the end of one entr’acte in Branden Jacobs-JenkinsAn Octoroon, a slave from the antebellum South sweeps up balls of cotton strewn across the floor. As Dido (Jasmine Bracey) moved her broom around the stage, she whistled a few bars of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Those who caught the irony laughed nervously. Taken out of its original context — from the 1946 Disney film Song of the South — that immensely hummable, if damnable, tune epitomized the playwright’s repeated use of satiric assemblage and psychological dislocation.

Jacobs-Jenkins repurposed Dido, and the other characters, from The Octoroon, a 19th-century play by Dion Boucicault. Where the British playwright wrote a melodrama, the contemporary American writer inflates the original until it bristles with rage and then bursts. But An Octoroon begins before Boucicault’s reconstructed narrative with a monologue from BJJ (Lance Gardner), the playwright’s proxy (BJJ = Branden Jacobs-Jenkins).

BJJ walks on stage in white underwear. We’re in his dressing room that’s furnished with a table of makeup and a single chair. He’s explaining how the play came to be and why he’s preparing to step into one of the roles himself. The language he uses though is filled with elisions. There are seismic shifts in meaning from line to line. He recounts a conversation with his therapist, then discounts her existence, and then addresses her again. The facts may be questionable, but he’s relaying some emotional truth. It’s just disguised.

In his script, Jacobs-Jenkins specifies “actor ethnicities” for the characters. BJJ is to be “played by an African-American actor or a Black actor.” As written, the monologue slips between outrage and wit, back and forth, like a standup comedian’s routine. Gardner delivers both competing strains until they collide. That collision takes place when BJJ finishes applying his whiteface. He’s masked up as a white man because none of the white actors he cast wanted to play McClosky, a cartoonishly sinister slave owner with a handlebar mustache.

That’s why a Black actor, in whiteface, is going to play a white man who owns Black slaves. Jacobs-Jenkins also rounds out this first act with a white actor (Ray Porter) in redface as a Native American and, in this production, a South Asian actor (Amir Talai) in blackface. After all three actors exit the stage with their new faces painted on, cotton balls (symbolizing the plantation crop) rain down from above and a small stage crashes to the ground. Now framed as a play within a play, Boucicault’s Louisiana melodrama is about to begin.

The Octoroon is a love story about Zoe (Sydney Morton) and George (the third role adroitly played by Gardner). Of the many obstacles between them, it’s Zoe’s status as an octoroon — that is, a person who is one-eighth Black — that complicates matters. What the playwright does with this overly determined, somnolent plot is remarkable. Boucicault’s stereotypes are amplified and nullified by the masks on these actors’ ethnicities. Those same masks are also strangely liberating.

The performances are genuinely inspired, even by the actors who are only, figuratively speaking, wearing masks. Jacobs-Jenkins wrote contemporary dialogue for the house slaves Dido and Minnie (Afi Bijou). They are the Greek chorus who can comment caustically on the folly of white people while simultaneously bringing to life the daily humiliations of what it meant to be enslaved.

And then there’s Dora (Jennifer Regan), An Octoroon’s purest comic creation. Her costumes are pitched at Beach Blanket Babylon levels of absurdity. Regan owns those outfits and then raises the stakes even higher. She’s Madeline Kahn as Scarlett O’Hara, a woman delighted by her own joie de vivre.

An Octoroon has two distinct endings. The first will stay emblazoned painfully in your mind, while the second one attempts to heal. Both feel equally weighted and equally real.

An Octoroon, through July 23, at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2900 or berkeleyrep.org. 

 

Photos by Kevin Berne

8: Lance Gardner as George in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep.

3: Jennifer Regan as Dora and Lance Gardner as George in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep.

1: Lance Gardner as BJJ in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon at Berkeley Rep.

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