Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. At: Definition Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $15-$40. Runs through: Aug. 20
What you need to know about the play called The Octoroon is that it was authored by Dion Boucicault in 1848, and recounted the story of a proud Louisiana family menaced by a neighboring slaveholder bent on seizing their property, along with the young mixed-race woman of the play's title. ( Officially, an octoroon is someone who is one-eighth Black by descent. )
It was lauded by audiences in both the Northern and Southern United States for its sympathetic portrayals of non-white charactersalbeit stopping short of allowing its interracial lovers to marry, instead orchestrating the selfless suicide of its despairing heroine. Oh, and its resolution featured the latest in antebellum state-of-the-art technology: photography.
The play dubbed An Octoroonnote the change from definite to indefinite articleis Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' examination of racial attitudes reflected in popular entertainment conceived by 19th-century playwrights. His deconstruction begins with his stand-in, "BJJ," explaining to us that all his white actors refused to play racist characters, forcing him to don Joey-clown whiteface, himself, in order to perform the dual roles of hero and villain. Native American actors likewise being in short supply, the part of just such a "noble savage" will be taken by the artificially scarlet visiting ghost of Dion Boucicaultstay with me, nowwhile the latter's assistant will be cast across racial and gender lines to portray grizzled Old Pete, wearing Javanese-puppet makeup.
With a premise like this, it should come as no surprise when the maids deliver exposition couched in modern colloquialisms, the piano accompaniment comprises faux-Stephen Foster arrangements of modern pop ditties like "You Don't Own Me" and Br'er Rabbit serves as a Thornton Wilder-styled stage manager.
A rule of thumb when constructing multidimensional meta-commentaries on existing texts is to write your commentary first, and then insert the source material in the remaining space. Melodrama is a hefty hunk of stage picture, even with Boucicault's "sensation scene" ( spectacle involving a steamship fire ) compressed into an ensemble-narrated synopsis. Director Chuck Smith is to be commended for reining in his cast's natural propensity for rushing material drawn from the original script for the sake of camp-giggles, but actors today being better trained for sprints than marathons, the energy level on opening night couldn't help but falter in the heavy-lifting second act. This temporary setback, however, proved no impediment to Jenkins' always-astute observations or the insights provided thereby.