Sunday, October 23, 2016

Must see AN OCTOROON will confound and frustrate some @ Dobama

Theater represents the era from which it comes!  In 1859, when THE OCTOROON opened in New York, the United States was in racial chaos.  The slaves of the South had been “freed,” but, in reality, they weren’t free from their years of enslavement.  Yes, blacks, the only mass group of people who came to this country against their free will, were the center of much controversy. 

THE OCTOROON, a play by Dion Boucicault, based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel, THE QUADROON, was extremely popular when it was produced.  It was an antebellum melodrama, generally regarded as the second most important of such plays.  The number one hit was, of course, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.

The play was produced during the era when romanticism (characterized by an emphasis on emotions, exemplified by displaying apprehension, horror, terror and awe) and the melodramatic (overdone, unrealistic, exaggerated characters and overly dramatic situations intended to appeal to the emotions) was at the fore.  (Think of the soap opera stories and acting of non-talky movies.)

The production sparked major debates about abolition of slavery as well as the role of theater in politics.  The latter centered on whether theatrical productions were intended to simply entertain or to also insight thought and discussion.

Skip forward about 175 years, it is now 2014 and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright and professor with credentials bannering Princeton, NYU and Julliard, adapts the Boucicault play.

The adapted play, AN OCTOROON, premiered off-Broadway, and was subsequently awarded the Obie for best new American play.  The issue of the now-called “African Americans” was still the center of much controversy. 

Jacobs-Jenkins’ reframing used the original characters and plot, much of the original dialogue, and inserted modern theatrical devices including the concepts of  Bertolt Brecht’s “historification,” “epic” and “alienation.”

Historification is using past historical events, which run parallel to today, to create a contemporary lesson!

AN OCTOROON is set in the old South, and though it does not use modern experiences, the situations are parallel to today. Racial profiling and the beating of and punishing African Americans and Indigenous peoples still exists, with law enforcement, court systems and economic parameters acting much like slave owners.

The script uses Alienation, making sure the audience knows they are in the theatre.  The author wants each observer to think of the implications of the play’s message for today.  To achieve this the production lets the scenery, lighting, makeup, and acting techniques be so obvious that they don’t lull the audience into transferring their attention to the production as being real. 

Jacobs-Jenkins recognizes that this topic is Epic.  His message is big, important, something that has major meaning.

On October 21, 2016, when AN OCTOROON opened at Dobama Theatre, the issue of African Americans is still front and center.  Yes, bigotry, violence, racial profiling, work and housing discrimination, xenophobia and prejudice runs rampant on the political, business and social landscape of the United States.

To achieve a Brechtian effect, Dobama’s staging starts with the first actor on stage talking directly to the audience.  He explains that he is the playwright and  he is going to use theatrical devices to tell his tale.

The acting is exaggerated, with overdone gestures.  The costumes are stereotypes which exaggerate.  The vocal presentations are not of traditional spoken structure.  The accents are overpowering, often inconsistent.  Makeup is put on before the audience and it is obvious that whites are portraying blacks and American Indians, while African Americans are portraying whites, yet some blacks are playing blacks and whites, whites.

The tale has characters, incidents and twists and turns that represent plantation life, the treatment of slaves and indigenous people, which are depictions but obviously theatrical devices to tell the story and bring the present-day audience to recognize that though we may give lip service to the concept that, “things  have changed,” that much has not changed as it relates to the racial divide in America.  We realize that “make American great again,” may not be such a good idea if this is what America was like.

The play takes place on the Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana.  The “Massa” of the plantation has just died, his wife is ill.   George, his nephew, has come to oversee the property, including the slaves, which have been treated “fairly” (haven’t been whipped or starved), but still are slaves, working in the fields, not being paid, living in shacks, and not free to be educated.

The plantation is near financial ruin due to gambling debts and the poor economy.  George falls in love with Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of the deceased plantation owner and one of the slaves.  Yes, she is an Octoroon, a word with varying definitions, but which generally means a person of mixed-race, commonly a person born of white and black lineage.  In some southern states it was legally defined as a person who is at least one-eighth black.

The plantation and all the slaves are to be sold, including Zoe.  Of course, the mustached, black hat wearing, evil neighbor, M’Closky is going to be the purchaser. 

We are told of a stolen record of money that would have saved the plantation from the auction block, a murder, a plot by the slaves to get themselves sold to a nice riverboat owner, a photo with incriminating evidence, the possibility of Zoe being bought by a wealthy young woman in love with George, and all the other sidetracks that make melodramas so theatrically untraditional.

In a melodrama there is one segment, a “sensation scene” in which the moral of the story is put forth.   A truth is revealed such as who the real villain is and who the innocent victim is or how dastardly deeds were done.  It is staged in a sensational, spectacular way which insights the senses.

In AN OCTOROON, the play stops about two-thirds way through, the playwright enters and explains the writing technique he is going to use to lead to the conclusion of the play.  He illustrates this by staging a near lynching, a trial, the revelation of the letter that M’Closky stole, his having killed a young black boy who was bringing the mail to the plantation which contained the evidence of money that would save the plantation, and a blazing fire takes place.

The play concludes with a “resolution scene,” which, as happens in all good melodramas, evil is defeated and the moral is presented.  We are left with the idea that race, represented by white, black and red faces which have been created with makeup, is simply a social construct, a theory put forth by sociologists and anthropologists, which has been expanded into a societal way of life.

AN OCTOROON, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta is excellent.  This is said recognizing that some may find the goings-on too long, others will be confused as to why the ”old fashioned” story is relevant today, some will be put off by the melodramatic staging, some will find the humor off-putting due to its dependence on” offensive” and non-politically correct words.

The Dobama production showcases the best quality of theatre…taking a script and staging it in such  a way that it develops the intent and purpose of the author. 

The cast (Ananias J. Dixon, Abraham Adams, Arif Silverman, Natalie Green, Katrice Monee Headd, India Nicole Burton, Anjanette Hall, Maya Jones and Nathan A. Lilly) understand the concept of melodramatic acting, a necessity for developing this author’s intent and purpose.  The technical aspects…lighting, costumes, makeup…all aid the concept of the play.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The hottest play of 1859 is back, but this time it is aimed at a 2016 audience with a plea for understanding and realization that things, regarding the blacks and Indigenous peoples, haven’t changed very much in the last 175 years. Seeing this production can be an important theatrical experience and challenge your belief system--“GO SEE!”

AN OCTOROON runs through November 13, 2016 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.