The lights suddenly go out and BOOM! a man leaps onto the stage in his underwear.
Dobama Theatre’s play “An Octoroon” begins with a shock and keeps pushing full force throughout the performance. Running now through November 13, 2016, it is like no other play you might have ever experienced.
Written by MacArthur Foundation 2016 MacArthur Fellows “Genius” Grant award recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (BJJ), the story is told through the author’s eyes.
“Hi, everyone. I’m a “black playwright.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m here to tell you a story…” says BJJ. And so it unfolds.
Dobama preps us with the summary, “Judge Peyton is dead and his plantation is in financial ruins. Peyton’s handsome nephew George arrives as heir apparent and quickly falls in love with Zoe, a beautiful octoroon. But the evil overseer M’Closky has other plans – for both the plantation and for Zoe. In 1859, a famous Irishman wrote this play about slavery in America. Now an American tries to write his own.”
Such a small nutshell to describe the 140 minutes of meaty tension that is this wonderful beast of a production! Directed by Nathan Motta, the sensitive content put forth in bold layers will give something new and shocking to all generations attending this important theatrical experience.
Why? Because we are forced to ask ourselves now, “How is it that even though we’ve come so far in improving relationships with all races, creeds, genders, etc. that we (as humans) are still not where we need to be today?”
The play goes back and forth between present time and the 19th century Deep South. BJJ (played by Ananias J. Dixon) arrives in his underwear to humorously recount his conversations with his “therapist” about what does (or does not) make him happy. He isn’t sure, but he believes the theater is his real therapy.
He strives to find some healing (if you will) through writing, taking an 1859 work by author Dion Boucicault called “The Octoroon” and endeavoring to give it new life. In trying to cast the vast landscape of his melodrama, BJJ finds it too difficult to staff, as all of his white actors keep quitting.
What’s a writer to do? Play the parts himself! *insert Brilliant Genius laugh*
The play then becomes a play within itself, and smacks the audience in the face with melodrama. The characters are bigger than life. They are huge in gesture. They are specific in gait. They are ultra-expressive.
There are characters in whiteface, blackface and redface. There are dastardly deeds and hands to foreheads. There are mountains of cotton balls and a mysterious rabbit. Suddenly, the stage feels very absurd and uncertain.
Amidst all of this, there is laughter (even if it’s awkward, or at the wrong moments). Despite the dark looming disquiet, there is hilarity in this show. It is as entertaining as it is disturbing.
There are fights. There are parties. There is escape. There is hope. There is love. There is buffoonery. There is tragedy. And all of this is incorporated into the fight for George’s estate and the fate of his slaves.
In Act 4, there are moments of absolute horror – the Sensation Scene. The scene that BJJ describes as real, dangerous and sort of moral. Where the play is given some sort of finality. Where the audience is so utterly shocked that the moment drives the rest of the everything.
The actual author Branden Jacobs-Jenkins deals with situations that an audience must chew on, and there is plenty served here. Race, relationships, justice – “An Octoroon” is a luxurious feast of feelings. Some of those feelings are not good. That’s okay – BJJ doesn’t want theater to be tame, he wants it to be a safe place to feel. Even if it’s ugly. Even if it’s shameful.
The energy expended by the actors is incredible. From moment one, each of them exudes anticipation. The sheer focus it takes to hold these large characters on the stage is monumental, and the ensemble should be credited for their timing and intent as well as their stamina and craft. There is so much life in all of the roles, that it’s overwhelming (in a good way) at times.
Dixon is brilliant as BJJ and flawlessly transitions into and out of his roles of George and M’Closky. His enthusiasm is contagious and his presence is riveting.
Hall is a fantastically conniving heiress as Dora (in a pretty pink cupcake of a gown), and Green gets all the sympathy as poor Zoe, the octoroon (which means that one’s “ancestry is one-eighth black”).
The duo of Headd and Burton as Minnie and Dido (respectively) is smart and funny. Don’t mess with them! Between the working, lazing, worrying, gossiping and plotting, the audience feels for them and laughs with them as they try to figure out (as “house slaves” instead of “field slaves”) what will become of them after all is said and done.
Much credit is due to director Nathan Motta for his staging and his vision on this difficult yet effective piece.
Finally, a nod to Dobama for the bravery to give this to Cleveland audiences. Is Cleveland ready for this work? Perhaps some are. Perhaps some aren’t. The important message is: it’s here.
“An Octoroon” features:
Ananias J. Dixon – BJJ/GEORGE/ M’CLOSKY
Abraham Adams – PLAYWRIGHT/ WANOTEE/ LaFOUCHE
Arif Silverman – ASSISTANT/ PETE/ PAUL
Natalie Green – ZOE
Anjanette Hall – DORA
Katrice Headd – MINNIE
India Nicole Burton – DIDO
Maya Jones – GRACE
Nathan A. Lilly – BR’ER RABBIT/ RATTS
Content Advisory: Adult Language, Adult Situations, Disturbing Images, Racial Slurs
For Dobama Theatre’s production of “AN OCTOROON,” there will be a pre-show conversation 20 minutes prior to curtain time and a post-show discussion for every performance. Audiences are encouraged to come hear a bit about the play from a member of the creative team prior to seeing it, then are invited to stay after to discuss what they’ve just experienced.
“An Octoroon” runs through November 13 at Dobama Theatre. Tickets are $23-$32, with Senior and Student discounts available. For more information, visit www.dobama.org or call 216-932-3396.