Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Octoroon" at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Rep photo by Kevin Berne
The last show of the season for Berkeley Rep this year was the west coast premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon, which is a really interesting, very different sort of show. Jacobs-Jenkins is a hot property among young (he's only 32) playwrights, having won an Obie award for Best New Play, been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and winning a Macarthur Foundation "Genius" award. So clearly there are high expectations that accompany any of his plays.

The Play

On one level, An Octoroon is sort of an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama by Dion Boucicault called The Octoroon, which was itself adapted from a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid called The Quadroon. All of these works are affirmatively anti-slavery pieces, with the titles referring to persons of mixed race, designating the proportion of their ancestry that was black. Melodrama was quite formulaic in its structure and style of performance, so some of this new play is an attempt to recreate that sense of theater.

At the same time, however, the play adds a layer of meta-theatrical analysis, as the characters "BJJ" (Lance Gardner) and "Playwright" (Ray Porter) both step into roles in the melodrama, with BJJ donning whiteface makeup to portray "George" in the story, and Playwright going bright red to portray an Indian. So we see early on that there will be nothing subtle about race in this production (although looks can be deceiving).

The play begins with a prologue in a dressing room, preparing for the melodrama. BJJ and the Playwright both prepare and trade jabs at one another, each both claiming and disclaiming the play we are about to see. It's a pretty interesting, if unsettling, beginning.

Next we launch into a couple of fairly straightforward renditions of the acts of the melodrama as it unfolds. By the fourth act, however, BJJ/George interrupts, quite thoroughly breaking down the fourth wall to make some points about slavery and lynching. After which the play resumes, but with a bit more self-awareness, and some winks and nods to the audience. By the fifth act, we are back in full immersion until we get some surprises.

The stage and casting directions specify that the male roles are to be played by certain races, but then performed in white-, red-, or blackface makeup. The female roles are all cast in accordance with the race of the characters portrayed. So all three slave women are played by black actors (though they behave in some wildly anachronistic ways at times).

In general, I would say the first part of the melodrama goes on a bit too long. The play as a whole ran well over three hours, with an intermission, but we'd gone almost two hours before the break. That could be cut down some without losing much of the play. It's hard to recommend cuts, because ultimately it's all interesting. But clearly some of the audience gets bored or restless in the long first act, and not all the seats were still filled after intermission. It's unfortunate to lose a chunk of the audience simple because the play is overly long.

The Production

With the exception of my earlier comments about the length of the show, I felt nearly everything was excellent. The casting was terrific. I have often enjoyed the work of Lance Gardner in recent years, but this was far and away his strongest overall effort. His is the focal character almost throughout, and he carried the role extremely well. But the supporting cast was strong as well. Porter's playwright and the almost silent Assistant (Amir Talai) really make the prologue sing. Talai really plays up the blackface roles later in the show. And the three slaves (Afi Bijou, Jasmine Bracey, and Afua Busia) had a particularly good chemistry and really aced their parts in the last act--totally convincing.

The set design by Arnulfo Maldonado was outstanding: minimal at times, but intricate and convincing (especially with the lighting from Jiyoun Chang). The "gotchas" of the last act could not have worked nearly as well without the work of the designers and techs.

Really, it all comes together and provides an extremely thought-provoking and yet entertaining show. Just about every time you find yourself getting caught up in the story, Jacobs-Jenkins pulls you back and makes you think about why it's working on you, even when he's told you what he's going to do and why. It's really quite remarkable.

Bottom Line

Sadly, this was yet another case of me seeing the show very late in the run, and then not getting around to blogging about it until after the show had closed. This was definitely the most intriguing and thought-provoking play I've seen in a while, and certainly the best overall production I've seen at Berkeley Rep in several years.

I should give credit to director Eric Ting, who holds together this most difficult assembly. It's easy to see lots of ways this play and production could go off the rails and become didactic or just offensive, and Ting keeps his crew well on the side of interesting and provocative without going for silly or inflammatory. Since I felt that was pretty much the opposite of what he did with last season's Othello at Cal Shakes, it seems only fair to give him credit here.

I quite enjoyed this production. Wished there were a bit less of it, but on the whole, I felt it was extremely well done.

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