Review: An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre ‘Dynamic, Fresh & Ruthlessly Frank’

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About thirty seconds in to An Octoroon, I knew I was at the start of witnessing something very special; by the end, I had been completely blown away by the bite and verve of this electric production that puts race, and specifically its impact on representation in theatre, squarely in its sights.

At the heart of this show is one frustrated contemporary playwright. BJJ (Ken Nwosu), an acronym that just so happens to be the abbreviation for Octoroon’s actual playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is disillusioned. His therapist is trying to find some way of getting him motivated in his work, but BJJ finds nothing in theatre to inspire him and, worse, is increasingly pissed off with representation, both on and off the stage.

For playwrights, being Black is politicised; for actors, the roles they have been historically offered have been caricatures, lacking any complexity in their arcs. And, worse, in plays about race, roles for White actors have had redemptive heroic qualities that spare them of guilt or complicity in the enslavement of Black people. Which leads us to a re-enactment, of sorts, of the 19th century play, The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, where this very thing happens – where a White plantation owner, George (also Ken Nwosu), becomes heroic because he falls in love with a woman with Black ancestry (the octoroon in question). What follows is a dynamic, fresh and ruthlessly frank examination of race that doesn’t just use whiteface, blackface and redface to be provocative, but uses them to demonstrate that they have left a legacy we have not yet fully left behind.

The acting performances across the board are impressive but special mention has to be given to Ken Nwosu who doesn’t so much as double up but triple up to play the three central characters – the contemporary playwright, his alter ego, George – the hero in the story – as well as the villain, M’Closky. His energy levels are awesome, as is his agility in jumping between the emotions and nuances of these different parts. But his delivery is also impressive. The play actually starts with a long soliloquy from him as BJJ, the playwright, but such is Ken’s command of the stage that time spent with him alone is captivating and intriguing.  

Director Ned Bennett has ensured that An Octoroon is so rich, so layered, that a comprehensive review of each and every element would take thousands of words. And not only would you not want to read that, it would also be a shame for me to rob you of the opportunity of discovering these for yourself. But, yes, the staging is dynamic; yes, the incorporation of modern vernacular is clever, engaging, and a smart way of reminding us this ain’t all in the past; and yes, unexpected use of shocking images from history brings the sobriety to this satire.

But I do want to make a special mention for the blending in of surrealism – a Br’er Rabbit, a tricky figure from literature with a lot of African-American overtones, stalks the stage – and for the noticeable allocation of caricatures to White actors, an appropriate reverse of BJJ’s initial complaint that complex character arcs are routinely denied to Black characters in plays. The impact of these did not pass me by but they are just examples of the risks taken in this production, which pay off handsomely.

At the finale, BJJ remarks that the intention was to make us feel something, and, well, that is achieved with ease. There are moments of joy and hilarity, and there are moments of fear and confusion. And there are also the very necessary moments of pained discomfort. This show is terrific. If I could take you all to see this, I would.

Orange Tree Theatre, London, to June 24, 2017
Tickets from £15 (concessions available)
All production images by The Other Richard.

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