Review: An Octoroon, National Theatre ‘As Incendiary as When I First Saw It’

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The simple truth is, I am the wrong person to be reviewing An Octoroon. Not only would I be amazed if most of the theatrical world didn’t know my opinion on it already – I adored it last year, eulogised about it almost daily, and named it my best show of 2017 – but I also feel that, as a white woman, it’s not my opinion that needs to be heard right now.

But unfortunately for you all I was given a review ticket so a review is what I am obliged to deliver… But I will try to do my best.

When I saw the European premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon at the Orange Tree last year, I felt like my spirit had caught fire. Here was, simply, the most dynamic, radical, exhilarating, intoxicating show I had ever seen in… well, years. Maybe ever. It was ferocious, risk-taking and relentless. Yet it blended sharp humour and biting satire with cutting observations on race, racism in theatre, and the issues of the white gaze.

Add to that combustible mix, Ned Bennett’s completely leftfield uniqueness and vision and the result was a production that will forever leave its mark on me.

Now, a year on, and I admit I had more than a little anxiety about revisiting this wonder on its transfer to the National Theatre. You would think that would be impossible but actually it makes perfect sense: the hype surrounding this production and my expectations made me fear that perhaps it wouldn’t be as good as I remember. Plus, reservations on the production were becoming more common from people of colour – had I missed something so obvious and clear-cut? Had my whiteness blinded me to problematic issues?

And how would Ned Bennett and the identical cast adapt the show to the Dorfman? Sure, the production would still be in the round (or, rather, the square) like the layout at the OT. But the Dorfman is far larger in scale, offers up so many more options and challenges. Would the production rise to that challenge?

Well, Christ… I mean, where to begin?

An Octoroon remains as incendiary as the day I first saw it. In fact, it has grown in magnificence. And it hits me that I’m almost 400 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the plot of the play. Do you need to hear it again? Fuck it, who knows, but here goes.

The lights don’t even go down to signal the start of the show. Simply, Ken Nwosu (God I love this man – someone give him all the awards) strolls onto the stage, stripped down to his Y-fronts and socks, and immediately starts engaging the audience directly.

His character is “BJJ”. Basically, he’s Branden, and his monologue winds it way through his therapy sessions and thwarted ambitions as he tries to explain how, as a black man, finding common thinking and role models in theatre has been a crushing non-starter. Yet all the while Ken is slowly yanking up his y-fronts higher and higher.

And you get it and you don’t. His monologue is funny and disconcerting, yet his disassociated movements seem arresting. Until it clicks. This a sly commentary on slave auctions, when black men would be forced to prove their worth to white buyers by a display of physical health.

And, boom! The tone of this play is set.

For what follows is a feast of satire at its finest and most cutting. Ken starts donning himself up in white face as he explains to the audience that the 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault was one he admired, especially his piece, The Octoroon. Now, BJJ may well be playing with us here as what follows is a production that takes Boucicault’s melodrama of the sale of a Louisiana plantation and its slaves and turns it on its head, shaking up its racism – casual and explicit – and demanding modern audiences face up to their complicity.

The blackface, the redface… What you’ve heard is true. It’s all here. As is the endless use of the n-word by both black and white actors alike. Every racist caricature is served up and exposed, from the exaggerated Southern slang of two enslaved women on the plantation to the minstrel tradition, from drunk Native Americans to the mocked heroics of a white man who is portrayed as a hero simply for acknowledging black people are good people.

It’s clever, yes, but oh my god is it funny. The first half in particular is terrific and remains probably the finest first half I have ever seen in a theatre.

And it was fascinating, extraordinary, to see how the production had been adapted to the Dorfman – and how certain tweaks had been made perhaps to acknowledge some of the concerns, such as the extra nuance Ken Nwosu seemed to find in his sections about the assumed white audience, which had been seen as an issue but, here, Ken seemed to ally himself up with the people of colour in the audience to say, yeah, this is no place for us here, still shading the institutionalised racism.

And if you saw Buggy Baby at The Yard, you will see a few similar tricks employed by Ned Bennett here. The horror and the humour have been ramped up more than few notches – some sections caused a few in the audience to scream out in shock – and the roller boots make a reappearance. But the BIG talking point has to be the moment Ken Nwosu *literally* sets the Dorfman alight.

This is as close to a revolutionary act that I’ve ever seen in a theatre.

But this, of course, all comes from the viewpoint of a white woman. And it is perhaps a reflection of my own whiteness that I still consider this play to be as sensational as it was when I first saw it. Perhaps my own experience is too narrow to have witnessed something more revolutionary than this.

But this production takes no prisoners. It knows the risks it is taking; I get the feeling BJJ knew exactly what he was doing and what he was treading on, and carried on regardless. I respect that outlook enormously.

On this second viewing though, I could appreciate more those concerns some have raised with elements in the second half such as the depiction of a slave auction, and the inference of some form of complicity from black men and woman, including the sexualisation of the black female body, and the use of the famous and explicit image of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.

The thing is, in my head I can make the case and I understand why all those decisions were made. I also completely understand why it’s not my place to make that case. And so that is why I agree that it is the reviews and thoughts on this production from people of colour that are most interesting now.

And, of course, the lack of those voices in the critical landscape is a pretty ironic reminder that An Octoroon is completely on the money – theatre remains a racist industry. All I can say simply is this, my ‘best show of 2018’ is highly likely to be the same as my ‘best show of 2017.’

National Theatre, London, to July 18, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Helen Murray.

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