It’s been a while since I last posted something! This is partly due to expensive life things happening, and theatre unfortunately having to take a back seat for a while. However, if you do find yourself in that situation, it’s always worth signing up to receive email offers from theatres. I got an email from the National Theatre and they were selling tickets for a tenner to watch the preview of An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. I’d heard good things during its run at the Orange Tree, so thought – why not?
An Octoroon is an adaptation of the 1859, The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault, a play about a white plantation owner falling for an Octoroon woman (someone who is an eighth black). The play opens with Ken Nwosu, playing a depressed playwright, explaining how he plans to put on an adaptation of The Octoroon to work through his depression. This introduction monologue is engaging, as he speaks candidly to ‘the white people’ in the audience in nothing but his boxers. He then begins to cover his face in white paint with rap music blaring in the background – it is here that we are introduced to the culture-clash theme and willingness to play around with taboos as the actors paint their faces white, black and red throughout.
The transition into the world of the play is truly magical – the lighting dims and we see something white in the darkness – the lights suddenly come up and the stage is covered in white powder and we see Cellist, Kewsi Edman in the centre. As a rule, the lighting and design by Elliot Griggs and Georgia Lowe is stunning- it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
We are then introduced to house slaves, Minnie (Vivian Oparah) and Dido (Emmanuella Cole). Through quick-witted dialogue and the energetic persona of Minnie, we establish a brilliant sense of sisterhood as they gossip about everyone on the plantation and joke about white masters sleeping with their slaves – an everyday occurrence it seems. Minnie talks about which white man she would choose to sleep with – this is met with a witty jibe from Dido: “Don’t think you’d have much of a say in the matter”. These women carry the play as they become useful plot devices, building up the world of the plantation.
Ultimately, this isn’t a love story, in fact, this adaptation makes the declarations of love between plantation owner, George (Ken Nwosu) and Octoroon, Zoe (Iola Evans) a mockery in its melodramatic delivery. This production explores racial taboos, identity and the horror-esque appearance of depression as the whole play appears to be inside the playwright’s mind. Throughout the play, the playwright’s depression rabbit appears eerily on stage as the lights flicker and sound becomes distorted – this imagery is terrifyingly disturbing, yet intriguing as it appears quite separate from the world of the play, tap dancing between the characters. I was sufficiently shook.
The second acts picks up the action a bit, as George loses the plantation and the slaves have to be sold – including Zoe. Nwosu breaks the fourth wall by bringing the house lights up and instructing the backstage crew to remove the panels from the floor, leaving one in the middle to act as the pedestal for the slave auction. The music is brooding, he simply watches them while they work. We then snap back into the action of the scene as Nwosu craftily plays both George and the evil villain, M’Closky who seeks to own Zoe and the plantation. A fight between the two characters ensues, and we see Nwosu frantically changing costumes as he fights with himself. This section of the play, as well as the fast-paced retelling of Act 4 offers some light relief, which is starkly contrasted later on with a huge projection of the famous image of black lynchings. There’s a stunned silence in the room. The themes from this 1859 play are summed up in this one image, and we’re left speechless.
The lighting, set and use of makeup in this production is simply incredible and are the most memorable elements of the piece. The play itself suffers from a few pacing problems – lamenting on certain scenes at the beginning for far too long, and then racing through the action in Act 4, but ultimately, the theatrical experience as a whole is so visually powerful, you forgive it.
An Octoroon is on till 18 July – BOOK NOW.
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